The other day I was having a brief talk with my mother about Santa Claus, and his ability to do the impossible, and how necessary it is for children to believe in that for a time. And I offered for consideration something like this: when you’re a young child and you’re lucky enough to have all these magical things are happening around you, you believe in Santa Claus. You cannot but believe in Santa Claus. Then you get older and the belief goes away because you find out – sometimes abruptly, sometimes over the course of time – who and what is behind all the magic, and having the reality of it in front of you makes it less real. But then you get even older and (at least in my case) you find yourself starting to believe again, whether you realize it or not, because you see and appreciate and frankly marvel at all the work and time and effort that went into, and still goes into, making the magic. And as you start to do that work yourself for other young people, or as you watch that moment happen for other children as it happened for you, you share that joy with them. You become a young child again, even if just a part of you or for just for a brief moment; you bask in the magic, even as the rest of you remains conscious of the ever-deepening reality.
It struck me, as I reflected on that conversation, that this progression of belief in Santa Claus mirrors my own journey through the Christian faith, particularly my belief in the Church itself. When I was a young child, I believed as readily as I do now, but blindly because it was all just happening around me in its pomp and wonder and beauty. I’m sure many people I know feel the same way, whether they stayed the course in the Church or not. Then as I got older, and more knowledgeable or worldly or whatever you want to call it, I saw through to the human side of the Church – and, let’s be honest, it’s not that pretty. I can easily understand why people have crises of faith when the impossibly perfect Church turns out not to be so perfect after all. And I went through same period in my late teens and early 20s. People may not have noticed, because I never left the Church or stopped going to Mass, but the doubts and the questions and the, at times, bitter disappointment were indeed there. Leaving aside the larger issues such as the abuse scandals (which broke just after I turned 21), priests and parish staff can be just as frustrating and absent-minded and clumsy and petty and narcissistic and just downright flawed as the rest of us (and how dare they!).
And then a funny thing happened as I continued to get older. After completing my Classical Studies degree, I found myself delving even further into both ancient and medieval history, and as I did I became more and more acquainted with the history of the Church and of its Roman and Greek cultural roots, to say nothing of its Jewish roots. I read the songs and treatises and arguments and stories and hymns. And through them all I saw all sorts of flawed people, acting in all sorts of flawed ways, but accomplishing amazing and wonderful things, both individually and en masse. I saw such varieties of work and effort and energy and time expended by bishops and kings and peasants, the endurance of schisms from within and persecutions from without, all on account of a singular moment to which every decisive action ultimately returns: an encounter with God-made-man.
This encounter, which we call the Incarnation – literally, the “enfleshment” of God – is what we celebrate at Christmas. God became man. He didn’t just look like a man, or appear to be a man, or just seem to be man; true God became true man. “For us men and for our salvation,” we recite every Sunday, “He came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Without losing anything of His divinity, God willed to be conceived in a womb, born of a woman, to grow, to live and to die – and to rise from death because it could not contain Him. And He did it because that’s how much he loves us. He wanted to be with His creation in such an intimate closeness that they could understand, that they could perceive, that they could see and hear and touch, that He walked among men as one of them. And what is more, He left us a Church and sacraments as a continuance of His Incarnation so that even today He is not just spiritually present as He is at all times, but physically present in the members of His mystical Body, in the person of his priests, and in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist. And He gave us an uneducated fisherman to guide its members, whose faith was not strong enough to walk on water when commanded, who three times denied even knowing who his Lord was, and whose successors are with us to this day with their own flaws and foibles.
One of my favorite modern Catholic writers, Father Robert Barron, has said that Christianity, while being a religion and a philosophy and a standard of moral living, is first and foremost a relationship. Just as a child has a relationship with Santa Claus that fades and yet can deepen over time, so do we in the Church have a relationship with God through His Son, because of the mystery of the Incarnation. The older I get, the more I see this mystery unfold before my eyes and become more and more deeply real. So if you find yourself in church this Christmas – and, of course, I hope you do! – try to look at it with eyes refreshed by joy and trust: joy that comes with knowing what perfect love this mystery shows, and trust that comes with knowing that very imperfect people have done the impossible to carry it forward to this day. Celebrate it. Let it wash over you; bask in the joy of the encounter. Feel young and full of wonder again, even as you stand there full of understanding and wisdom. This constant unfolding of the Incarnation, begun 2000 years ago in a Judean hovel, is the most magical reality of them all, because it is the realest magic of them all.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And yes, your Lord will come on the morrow.