In one of the first entries of Preparing for Christmas, an Advent devotional by Father Richard Rohr, there is a warning about the danger of sentimentalizing the baby Jesus. Because this is something I can get on quite a high horse about, reading Rohr spurred me to illuminate my spouse from a position of religious, aesthetic and intellectual superiority. As the words were coming out of my mouth, my wife stopped me by asking, “What’s so bad about being sentimental at Christmas?”
I was going to unload a laundry list that begins with Precious Moments Nativity figurines and goes on to include Johnny Mathis, most versions of O Holy Night, and commercial Christmas music performed by children’s choirs, when I stopped myself. Who am I to pass judgment on what others find meaningful? Hasn’t the postmodern world taught us that one man’s saccharine is another’s life-giving medicinal syrup?
Truth be told, there is a Christmas sentimentality war going on inside of me. There are years when I have avoided It’s a Wonderful Life, disgusted at how many ways the movie tugs on our heartstrings. Zuzu’s petals — give me a break! But there have been other years that I’ve watched the whole darn thing and the minute Bedford Falls turns into Potterville there are tears streaming down my face. George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge dancing around gets me, as does his animated doppelganger the Grinch, and I cannot listen to Linus tell Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas without looking for a Kleenex.
This internal sentimentality war seems to go into overdrive at Christmas, but it happens at other times and in other settings as well. I can’t watch Dorothy’s yearning to go home in The Wizard of Oz or listen to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald without blubbering like an old fool. I was warned in college about “sentimentality” and its cousin “romanticism,” but feelings matter to me and, even if this is a weakness, I realize how something makes me feel is as important as or even more important than what I think about it.
There are life events that defy my intellect.
I can’t fully describe what it felt like when I saw my children being born, but I know what happened inside of me had more to do with my heart than my head.
I can’t fully describe what it felt like when I knelt and had the weight of 30 or 40 hands laid upon me at my ordination, but I know what happened inside of me had more to do with my heart than my head.
I think you know what I’m talking about . . . how do we understand and talk about Grace (with a capital G) without it involving our emotions and feelings and heart? I bumble at it, the way I bumble when I try to say all it meant when I was a young father and I’d steal a moment or two in the hallway at night and look at one of my children sleeping, or what it felt like when I saw the pictures of movie stars Anne Frank had pasted onto the walls of the secret rooms in the upper reaches of that house in Amsterdam she hid in before the Gestapo caught her, or what it was like seeing a dozen Boston Marathon bombing survivors walk on their prosthetic limbs and stand around James Taylor one night during the last World Series while he sang America the Beautiful in his sad, mournful voice.
As much as I love Richard Rohr, as much as I understand exactly what he’s saying about sentimentalizing the baby Jesus and as much as it irritates me that people who love the song I’ll be Home for Christmas don’t understand that it’s a song about a guy who will NOT be home for Christmas, I can’t help myself. My throat will catch singing O Come All Ye Faithful at church on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day I will be with the people that matter most to me in the world. I’ll know that for that one day, at least, all of us will be safe and happy and under the same roof. If some snow happens to fall and muffle the outdoor world into the sort of solemn stillness that precedes angel choirs, and the neighborhood lights twinkle in the winter gloom so that the dark streets shineth, I won’t be surprised if a tear comes into my eye. It’s okay to get a little sentimental. The hopes and fears of all the years really are met in Thee tonight. Don’t fight it. It’s Christmas.