It is the day before Christmas, and I should be scurrying around, doing my last minute shopping, and letting the holiday spirit overcome me all at once. I fight it, you see, feeling somehow that a day celebrating the birth of the Son of God by a virgin is just too much to take.
But I yield in the end, not so much to the theology, but to the chance to draw close to those I love, and to shut out the world for a few days.
Christmas is like that, you see. If you let it, the holiday will transform you. Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t the only one undone by love.
But you won’t see me shopping this year, at least not close to home. I am writing this from Florence, Italy, just after having spent a week in Rome.
Paul wrote of this foolishness in his first letter to the church in Corinth: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God,” he wrote.
I am not saved. The cross is foolishness to me. Or so it seemed …
You can’t escape the cross in Italy. It’s everywhere. There are churches seemingly at every square. In recessed alcoves on street corners, religious figures peer out onto passersby. Works of art proclaim a story of sacrifice, salvation, and damnation.
Walk a street in Italy and it as though the statuary keeps an eye on you, reminding you that you are not made of the same enduring stone.
God, it seems, is everywhere.
My family is in Italy in the days before one of my children weds in England. We wanted some time just to ourselves before turning this new chapter. My wife and I headed to Rome for a week alone just before the kids, all of whom are adults now, arrived.
Yes, the Coliseum impresses, and the Forum is endlessly fascinating. Rome is a proud city; it is the seat of a civilization that has endured now for millennia.
But what drove me to tears was the sight of the Vatican, this from a sinner, a man of unclean lips, as the prophet Isaiah might say, who never darkens the door of a church, who never prays, and who is tone deaf to the sound of the divine.
Why so moved?
Yes, the Sistine Chapel is a marvel. Michelangelo’s frescos tell a familiar Biblical tale, and the Last Judgment is a powerful statement about a moral order to the universe. But these works of art are almost too overwhelming to move. I kept saying “wow,” over and over again, as we turned each corner.
But there’s something more substantial than the eye candy, something lingering in the silence. Just what it is, I cannot say, but I know enough to want more of it.
It is easy to scoff at the Church until you stand inside one. There’s a silence in the air, the intimation of something holy. All truly is calm. This story of a virgin and her child is so wildly improbable, yet it speaks a truth I can almost hear: Almost, as if a lover’s glance fell just askew and did not meet my eye.
There is a safety in the confines of the Church I found stunning. Amid the world’s chaos, something stands, and has withstood, the test of time. I imagine finding a place there, if such a thing were possible.
I am suddenly the father of a child in need of healing: “I believe, help thou my unbelief,” the words of Mark in his gospel, come to mind.
So it is the eve of Christmas. I am far from home and familiar rhythms, but close to the ones I love. I am a stranger in a strange land filled with religious symbols reason has taught me to scorn.
We call ours a Hellenistic household. My father is from Crete, my wife is Jewish. We celebrate no religious holidays in a religious way.
But this year, we’ll attend midnight Mass at the Bascilica of Sante Croce, at the tomb of Michaelangelo. On Christmas, we plan on attending another service at the Cathedral of Sante Maria del Fiore, the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, and Florence’s church. It took more than 100 years to complete this church, one generation after another laboring in love to create a house for an unseen God.
It’s Christmas, and, I say it once again, I am far from home, a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by symbols of a faith I do not share.
Yet I am so filled with longing just now. I’m wishing, once again, for the things I longed for as a child — just one glimpse of the divine, just one whisper from a voice without a body. Jacob’s hip was broken when he wrestled with an angel. Lucky Jacob.
The Church universal, a word made flesh.
Merry Christmas, everyone. May peace find you amid your sorrows, and joy, too. The world, it appears, is filled with surprises.