Christmas is charmed, and desire can do more than we dream.
So says Marcellus in Scene 1 of that old, Yuletide ghost story “Hamlet.” Should that surprise us? That Christmas is charmed, that desire can do more than we dream? This is, after all, the beginning of the Gospel story, the Good News that the desire of nations was born a babe in Bethlehem.
Christmas completely corresponds to the human heart, which dwells only partially in today, passing its time in long desired futures and far distant pasts. Small wonder that we dream of time travel! The soul never stops wandering in times that are not.
One such soul was Giovanni di Pietro di Bernadone, the man we now call St. Francis of Assisi. Francis wanted to live as his Christ had lived, a poor man. Others didn’t think that still possible, but Francis reached back through the centuries to recreate Christ’s style of life: wandering, relying on the goodness of God, loving God in his creation and in his people.
In 1223, Francis found himself celebrating the Nativity of the Lord with the people of a hillside village named Grecio. The feast wouldn’t yet have been called Christmas, or the Italian Natale. Indeed, Christmas hadn’t yet garnered its emotional richness. No carols, no Christmas trees. To the contrary, it was rather a solemn day, one spent pondering the descent of the Godhead.
Francis reached back in time to recapture the charm of Christmas. An early biographer, St. Bonaventure, records the story.
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.
Christmas is charmed, and desire can do more than we dream. We know that Francis reached back in time to reclaim Christ’s poverty, reached back to restore his birth in the manger, creating the Christmas crèches now in our homes and churches. Why shouldn’t the Babe of Bethlehem have come to such a man that night?
Christmas is part of a larger mystery, the unfolding of the sacred liturgy in the days of the years, flowing between the centuries of Christ’s first and final coming. The liturgy gathers all time into itself, into the mystery of Christ. At every Eucharist, Christ is present in all his fullness, in each moment of his life. He is the newborn Babe and the Kingdom of God proclaimed. He is the crucified Christ and the Risen Savior. In liturgy, the human heart traverses time. It pierces the past to find its Christ. It falls into a future he has already claimed.
“So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.” Our hearts sojourn in Christmases long past; they find themselves dreaming of the dawn. Because Christmas comes every year, it gathers all years to itself. It has done this since Christ gave it to us, though his troubadour Francis lavished the feast with imagination and emotion.
In the liturgy time is made hallowed and gracious. In liturgy, Christ gathers time, gathers us into his feast. We determine how deeply we fall into his depths. Christmas is charmed, and desire can do more than we dream.