Guess who's coming to Christmas dinner?

Posted: Dec 19, 2002 12:00 AM
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 and relationships. 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 recently, understood
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.