Party game: If you could have any guest you wanted for Christmas
dinner, would you invite Elvis? George W. Bush? Lance Armstrong?
Lots of guests would be entertaining. Some would offer
instruction. But only one could change not just some things, but everything
in the lives of those at the table. Soon-to-arrive Christmas is about the
visit to Earth of a dinner guest whose presence makes all the difference for
hosts with eyes to see and ears to hear him.
The essayist Isaiah Berlin wrote, "The world of a man who
believes that God created him for a specific purpose, that he has an
immortal soul ... is radically different from the world of a man who
believes in none of these things." Berlin noted that "the reasons for
action, the moral codes, the political beliefs, the tastes, the personal
relationships of the former will deeply and systematically differ from those
of the latter."
So true. I'm evidence. Born in 1950, I moved from atheism to
Christianity in 1976. Do the math for this numerically equal
before-and-after comparison. Half a life flying on my own power and messing
up thoroughly: You name the moral crime, I did the time. Half a life flying
on a wing and a prayer, changed for the better in morality, beliefs, tastes
Christmas, coming so late in the year, reminds us that changes
even late in life can make a huge difference. Physician Jerome Groopman, in
"The Measure of Our Days," tells of treating Kirk Bains, a stock speculator
stricken with terminal cancer. When Groopman told Bains he was sorry, Bains
told him not to be, for "there was no reason to live anyway. ... I had no
interest in creating something, not a product in business or a partnership
with a person. And now I have no equity. No dividends coming in. Nothing to
show in my portfolio."
Bains apparently died feeling he had "lived a wasted life." But
it would have been wonderful if someone had told Bains that he still had
hope. He could not relive his life, but he still had a little time to
live -- and the message of Christmas is that any of us, no matter how close
we are to physical death, can cross over to spiritual life.
The emphasis on material gifts at Christmas may make us think of
Christianity as just one more exchange religion: You do something for a god,
who will then do something for you. Roman pagans 2,000 years ago, like Bains
liberalitas, giving to please a
recipient who will at some point please you. The smart set in ancient Rome
thought it was better to give than to receive, because by clever giving to
wealthy friends they could receive even more later on -- and they applied
the same concept theologically, offering sacrifices as investments.
Christians, though, practiced caritas,
help to the economically poor without expectation of anything in return.
They did that to imitate Christ, who was unjustly abandoned, tortured and
killed for the sake of all who believe in Him. They praised God's
willingness to pour his grace over those who had done nothing to earn it.
Christmas is about God's caritas. Jesus in
the manger may seem cute, but the incarnation for God was actually an
enormous comedown, like being born as a dog would be for us. (No, worse: a
cockroach or beyond -- a different realm of being.) And yet, Christ showed
caritas right to the last, by telling one of the
thieves dying alongside Him that they would be together in paradise.
Kirk Bains apparently did not seize his opportunity to cross
over and become in whatever moments he had left a monument to God's (SET
ITAL) caritas. But it's glorious that many do receive, through
God's grace, a very merry Christmas dinner. For God doesn't even have to
wait for an invitation. Whenever he chooses, He crashes the party.