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Edwin Faust: Who Owns Christmas?

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Christmas Midnight Mass

Who Owns Christmas?
A Santa Fe Memory

By Edwin Faust

 


     It was noon by the glowing green dial of my alarm clock, but the room was dark because it had no windows, save for one sealed square of opaque glass in the bathroom and another like it, heavily curtained, that looked into the dining room of La Cocina, the restaurant behind which I rented a room on the highway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. I would occasionally draw back the curtain and try to see through the milky glass into the dining room, but all I could make out were indistinct forms, shadow figures like those seen by the cave dwellers of Plato’s allegory.


    The day was like most days, except that it was Christmas Eve. I was due at work in a few hours at The Quick Bite, where I was a short-order cook, and the prospect impressed upon me how dismal my life had become. There would be no Christmas cheer at The Quick Bite, which was owned by Sheldon, a Jewish émigré from New York who liked to ski and had invested his inheritance in a few properties around town so that he could be near both the slopes and his money. One thing Sheldon had not envisioned in moving West was that his daughter, having been immersed in a gentile world, would marry one of the local goyim and, later, convert to Catholicism. This misfortune marred the life he had otherwise lived with great prudence and profit, and he could not forbear to vent his rage with some frequency, even in front of the chain gang at The Quick Bite, all of whom were either indifferent or unsympathetic to his complaint. So great had his annoyance at his daughter’s tribal infidelity grown that Sheldon gave the impression he regarded Christianity as a personal attack upon his family integrity. His mood had been growing progressively darker as Christmas approached.

    I switched on the small lamp on the table next to my bed and plugged in the electric coil I used to heat my morning coffee. As I sat there in the weak light, I began to wonder what sort of day it might be outside my cell, so I opened the door. It was a glorious day, such as can only be seen in northern New Mexico. The clean, crisp air of the high desert and a sky of immaculate blue gave an intimation of prelapsarian purity. There, a mile above the world, ringed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it was sometimes possible to believe that all had not been lost in the primal calamity and that our perfect nature lay just a little beyond our reach, waiting to be reclaimed.

    As I closed the door and retreated into the gloom, a wave of dissatisfaction swept over me. It seemed radically wrong that I should spend Christmas Eve cleaning the grease traps in Sheldon’s kitchen, so I dressed quickly and walked around the corner of the building to a phone booth and called the restaurant. Sheldon answered. As soon as I heard his voice, I realized that I didn’t want to talk to him – ever.


    “This is Ed. I’m quitting,” I said, and hung up.


    So much for my job. Now what? Well, it was Christmas Eve and I found myself, for the moment, freed from the grimy toils of commercial life, so I started walking toward town, intent on joining the feast.


    Santa Fe, in those days, was still a place of family piety, although it had suffered a recent incursion of refugees from the 1960s: washed-up hippies, new agers and assorted ne’er do wells – the human tumbleweed that blow across the landscape of this country, rootless, purposeless, getting caught now and again in one of the remoter outposts of civilization, as in some ragged bit of vegetation shivering in the wind of a dying world. I had blown into town that fall and had at that time few acquaintances and no genuine friends. No one had invited me to share his holiday hearth, so I sought hospitality in one of the bars that would remain open for a few more hours, for all commercial life in the town ceased early on Christmas Eve and did not resume until St. Stephen’s Day.

  
  I whiled away the latter part of the afternoon sipping tequila and looking out on the plaza with its obelisk honoring the heroes of the territory “who fell in various battles with the savages.” The local council of Pueblo Indians had, after decades of indifference, come alive to the offence presented them by this inscription and pressured the town fathers to scratch it out and erect a plaque explaining the defacement as a corrective for the prejudice of a less enlightened age, one that regarded as “savage” that which had now become appreciated for its rich culture. As I sat there, my head and heart growing light, I watched the representatives of this rich culture squatting on blankets in front of the Palace of the Governors, where they sold jewelry and souvenirs to tourists. It was said by some that their turquoise was made of paste and their onyx the product of broken phonograph records, but the Indians had adopted their conquerors’ ancient adage of ‘caveat emptor” and local sentiment held that the small swindles they enacted on the plaza were as nothing compared to the larger injustices visited on their aboriginal ancestors. And so the tradition of mutual fraud and deceit between the races lived on.

    
As the light began to fade, the Indians collected their dubious goods and rolled up their blankets. The bartender sounded last call and I realized that soon I would have no place to roost. The town was shutting down, and its people, for an evening and a day, were abandoning trade for family, leaving me, who was without family, without refuge.

    As the sun lowered to the hills, it poured its crimson light onto the slopes that circled the town. It was for these sunset hues that the mountains were named: Sangre de Cristo – blood of Christ. But that name was given centuries ago, when people still thought about Christ, and the natural world appeared to them as touched by Him in all its aspects and phases. Had those mountains been named in our day, what would they likely have been called, I wondered? What would Sheldon have called them? The Ketchup Mountains, I supposed, and laughed.

    I walked into the plaza, which was empty now, and sat on a bench in front of the obelisk while the shadows deepened and the mildness of the day gave way to a biting frost. It had become very cold very quickly, but there was no place where I could go to find warmth, except my room, and the thought of spending the evening there alone was one I refused to consider. There was the hotel, of course. It would be open. So I walked to La Fonda, a short distance from the plaza. The bar had closed, and the restaurant, too. The lobby was empty and an idle desk clerk asked in a slightly annoyed manner whether he could help me. I told him no, and, after looking me over with a suspicious eye, he retreated to a back room, perhaps to alert security to my presence. I wanted to sit down, to remain someplace where there was light and heat and the occasional sight of another human being, even a hostile clerk, but I knew that I should leave. So I walked outside again and looked around. At the end of the street, there was the Cathedral of St. Francis. It was glowing, with flood lights trained on its adobe-colored edifice, and people going in and out of its doors.

    I walked toward the building with a sense of relief and gratitude, but as I came closer, I also felt misgiving. I had not been to church for several years. What right had I to the hospitality of the cathedral on Christmas Eve? This night and this place belonged to the faithful and I had ceased to be one of them. It seemed to me that I would be committing a sacrilege were I to enter the holy precincts under false pretences. I was no worshiper, but merely someone who was cold and lonely and would not have come there had I not been shut out of my usual haunts. I hesitated. I walked around the building, looking at it from different angles. At one point, I stood in the shrubbery of the grounds, in a dark spot, and looked at the golden glow of its windows. I had a sense that this was where I should in justice remain, in some obscure vantage, enjoying only a modicum of light from a suitable distance, but I began to draw closer, almost involuntarily, and, eventually, I crossed the threshold.

    It felt exceedingly odd to be inside a church again, as though I were a ghost visiting my dead past. Next to the earnest people around me, I saw myself as an imposter and, quite insensibly, feared discovery and expulsion. I had the unreasoning feeling that anyone looking at me would know that I didn’t belong, that I was a fraud, and I sought some out of the way place in which to keep myself from being discovered. Most people were making their way to the manger scene near the main altar, where a line had formed and families with little ones waited their turn to say their prayers before the infant Jesus. I found, however, off a side aisle, an unfrequented recess that held a small altar with a statue of the Blessed Mother behind it. There was a corner of shadow behind a pillar inside the recess, and there I hid myself.

    The altar appeared a forgotten place and Mary’s statue unregarded and unhonored. I felt sad for her and sad for myself. As I stood there, hat in hand, staring at the image of the mother of Christ, at the mother He had given to all of us, to me, as He was dying on the cross, I envisioned the long line of my ancestors who had worshiped at such altars; who had tried in their fallible ways to be dutiful sons to this loving mother. Until I came along. I stood there, not as the last in a procession of the faithful of my family, but as one who had broken with that faith. And so I was alone on Christmas Eve, rightly so, trying to steal some warmth by an intrusion into a house I had long deserted.

    Why had I deserted?

    It was a question that I pondered through the rest of that long night and through the seemingly endless day that followed, as I remained sequestered in my windowless room. Even the shadow figures no longer kept me company, as the restaurant was closed. The only sound of life was the distant, muffled roar of an occasional car on the highway. I had called my family back East earlier in the day to wish them Merry Christmas. They responded with the usual solicitude about my welfare, and, as usual, I assured them I was well and would be spending the afternoon and evening with some friends.

    Alone in my room, I reviewed how I had fallen away from the faith.

    Many people who have left the Church are prone to create a false memory of how the break occurred. In recounting their personal histories to others, they give the impression of having conducted a careful assessment of the probable truth of certain historical claims and the practical wisdom of traditional moral precepts. They portray themselves as just judges who, having conscientiously weighed the evidence, found that they could no longer give their honest allegiance to the faith of their fathers. I have heard, and continue to hear, such recitals, much like my own erstwhile inventions. They are all fraudulent.

    The first step outside the house of faith is almost always preceded by an unrepented sin. All through our young lives, we are prone to moral lapses, which we confess and vow to avoid in the future. It is quite usual for us to fail again and again in the same way; to find ourselves in the thralldom of our predominant fault, which may not be overcome in a lifetime of effort. What is important is that we keep up the combat; that we continue to hope and pray and accept our defeats without despair. It happens, however, that some of us at some juncture give up the combat. We may do so through discouragement or indolence or a strange sort of arrogance – call it the pride of life - that arises unexpectedly from some hitherto unknown corner of our soul and counsels us to lay down this burden of guilt; to quiet the carping of conscience.

    We see, as though through an open door, a broad expanse outside the confines of faith. All we have to do to free ourselves is to quit our little room of cramped morality; to step outside and breathe the fresh air of a world without duty or dogma, guilt or shame. How strongly this world sometimes beckons to us, especially in youth, and how many of us have walked through that promising portal to find ourselves not the free men we had hoped to become, but strangers in a strange land, uncertain which way to turn now that all roads are open to us, for we no longer have any clear direction.

    I could have excused myself for walking through that door, for my adolescence coincided with the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic cosmos was descending into chaos. Much we had been told was absolute truth appeared suddenly doubtful. The religious order that taught at my high school was hemorrhaging, with priests deserting with increasing frequency, leaving their students to suspect they had discovered the faith to which they had pledged themselves was a fraud. All that had appeared solid was dissolving in front of me. Even the Mass was no more.

    I remember awaking one Sunday morning when I was 18 and surprising myself with the thought that I would not go to Mass. I had never before considered such a thing. How strange, it seemed to me, that I should be doing so, yet, I realized that I was no longer afraid of any consequence. As I lay there, and the minutes passed and the time for reversing my decision was at length behind me, I felt as though I had become someone else. I didn’t quite know myself anymore, and the feeling was both unsettling and exciting. But I cannot say that I was not also visited with a dark presentiment, which I dismissed as a residue of juvenile fear. Still, it stayed with me, a shadow in the back of my mind that would not go away: the shadow of conscience.

    That morning marked the beginning of many years of confusion and wandering. I had stepped through the door, left the room of faith, and where had my travels brought me in that supposedly free land I had entered? To a windowless room behind La Cocina and a Christmas spent in solitude and darkness.

    As I said, I could have blamed the condition of the church for my falling away from the faith, but that would have been dishonest. The fact is I wanted to escape from the church’s moral restrictions. The world around me at the time – the world of the late 1960s – had entered into a kind of pagan bacchanalia – and there I was, standing apart, chaste and sober, a dutiful Catholic, unable to join the party. But I longed to join it, so that is what I did. No matter what rationale I may have fashioned and cast at the shadow of conscience that would not quit me, the truth is that I had been willful and wanton.

    I think this is, with unimportant variations, how most of us fall away from the faith. Our sense of dignity before ourselves and others may require a more elevated account of our departure; some description of doctrinal doubt to raise the matter above mere passion, but that is pure fancy. It is, at most, after the fact. St. Paul’s observation holds true: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

    I had started to work my way toward such conclusions that dismal Christmas in Santa Fe, but I was long inured to a fecklessness that was common among those with whom I associated and, I might say, of the world in general. I felt much as did MacBeth when he lamented: “To turn back were as tedious as to go on.” In either direction I saw before me a hopeless prospect. It seemed improbable that I should ever be good again, yet I was disgusted with my vices, which no longer even gave me pleasure but had become mere habits.

    On Christmas Eve, as I stood in the shadows by Mary’s altar, my seclusion had been disturbed by an old woman who happened by, looked toward the statue and made her way to the altar rail, where she knelt, signed herself and said a silent prayer, though I could see her lips move. I imagined she said a Hail Mary. I envied the old woman. I wished that I could do as she had done, but I could not then bend my knees and say the prescribed words. “If only I could,” I thought.

    It was a weak prayer, perhaps, but we never know the power of prayer. Perhaps, that night, grace began to fall on the arid ground of my soul, softening it gradually until the seeds of faith, long dormant, could sprout again.

    One thing I did realize then was that Christmas belongs only to those who love and serve Christ. I was shut out of Christmas, for I was then intent upon loving and serving myself. I wanted to share in the joy of the day, but I could not. It was to take years for me to reclaim Christmas, for I had to discover something about what it means to stand around the manger.

    The late Bishop Sheen once made a memorable observation. He said that every man who has been born, except one, came into this world to live. That one exception is Jesus Christ, who came into this world to die. When we look at the child in the crib at Christmas, we are looking at sacrificial love. From His first breath, His first moment, His first steps, Our Lord was moving ever closer to one place: Calvary.

    Many want the joy of Christmas, but few want the sorrow of Calvary. Yet, the one cannot truly be had without the other. We cannot separate and sentimentalize one phase of Our Lord’s life. If we are to possess Him, we have to take Him in His entirety.

    There is a profoundly beautiful poem by T.S. Eliot called “Journey of the Magi,” which recounts not only the physical journey of the kings to the manger, but the spiritual journey the vision of Christ began in their souls. One of the magi concludes:

    • I had seen birth and death,
      But had thought they were different; this birth was
      Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
      We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
      But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
      With an alien people clutching their gods.
      I should be glad of another death.
   
 If we are to give birth to Christ in our souls, it seems we must die to ourselves. And so this child in the manger has come both to destroy and to create. He has come to cast His fire into the old world and consume all its ancient corruption, including that which has taken root in us, and He has come to create a new world, one where the sky is pure and beautiful as the heavens over the high desert, and where the blood of Christ spreads over the mountains and into the plains, cleansing the earth and us.

Archived piece from Catholic Family News

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