Which way to Christmas?
I was standing out on the plaza, right by the sidewalk yesterday morning, waiting for some people to show up to help me set up the Christmas Tree Forest of Love. I had been running around getting everything together and I didn’t have time for my usual breakfast so I grabbed one of those handy individual servings of Cheerios they sell, and began popping them into my mouth, dry.
By the way, did you know, it says it right on the box, that Cheerios are "Can reduce heart disease"? Did you know that they're "Crispier", did you know that they have a "Better Toasted Oat Taste"?
So I was eating these now-better-than-ever, crispier, better-toasted-oat-taste Cheerios, and I was thinking, you know, there's nothing to these things, you put them in your mouth and they just sort of melt away, all the air goes out of them and they become mush on your tongue, and I was thinking, you know, how many Cheerios could you eat, really, I mean, my little one-person-portion turned into mush wouldn't hardly fill up my stomach. You know? You could probably eat a million little Cheerios before you'd feel full. And I was thinking about this and eating the Cheerios on the sidewalk, and as usual there were a bunch of cars going down 2nd Ave.
And you may not realize it but there is this pot-hole-like depression in the road right out front of the church, and especially when big trucks (like a garbage truck) goes over it they make a big noise, a huge BAM, which is sometimes distracting at Mass. Anyway, that happened as I was eating my Cheerios, a huge BAM. And afterwards, I was thinking, you know, how many Cheerios would I have to mush up in my mouth to fill up that depression, like zillions of now-better-than-ever, crispier Cheerios would be needed for me to make the road smooth again?
And I imagined, you know, spending months out there on the sidewalk, and truckloads of Cheerios would be dumped beside me and I'd just be chewing them all day, mushing them in my mouth and then spitting out the mush to fill in the depression, you know, right through the winter and the snow and freezing cold, and in the mud of the spring, in the heat of the summer and maybe even right into the fall, chewing on cajillions of crisper, now-better-toasted-oat-tasting Cheerios.
I'd have no time to do anything else, I couldn't do set up Christmas trees on the plaza, I couldn’t do Mass, the job would be too big to do anything else but filling in the depression and making the road smooth again for the trucks and cars cruising down 2nd Avenue.
Obviously, I was pretty bored while I was standing there waiting for my fellow forest-makers to arrive.
I was jolted out of my Cheerio thoughts by some young men who were walking down the sidewalk dressed like Santa Claus. That’s when I realized that yesterday was that dumb Santa-con day. I’ve never liked the whole idea of it because I think it cynically disrespects the innocence of children. And even though it was 9 in the morning, these guys already smelled of alcohol.
One of them looked at me and the tree stands behind me and said, very sarcastically, "Hey buddy, which way to Christmas?".
I must have looked at him with a blank stare or something, my mouth was half-full of Cheerios, and as I was trying to comprehend his question--what did that mean, 'which way to Christmas?', I mean, I was still in my Cheerios reverie--but I guess I wasn't fast enough for him, and so he said, "Oh forget it", and suddenly one of those big trucks hit the depression and made a huge BAM sound and it scared a curse word out of him, but he and his buddies just continued walking down 2nd Avenue.
"Which way to Christmas?", and how do you get there without hitting a lot of depressions in the road? On a road paved with Cheerios, perhaps, every valley, age-old depths and gorges filled to level ground, all the windings made straight, the rough ways made smooth... with mushed up Cheerios? The way to Christmas would be smooth indeed on Cheerio road, but oh what a job it would be, and how many Cheerios you would need!
"Hey buddy, this way to Christmas!", old John the Baptist would have responded right away to my impatient Santa, and then he would have guided him right through the depression and off the road across the meadow and up to a forest of Christmas trees. John would have guided all the Santacon Santas through the trees into the thickest of underbrush, he would have had them tramping along behind him going deeper and deeper into the heart of the forest, where you have to hack away at vines and lay stones over raging waters and make bridges of logs across bottomless gorges. Old John the Baptist would have had those Santacon Santas out there making the hard way to Christmas, because there is no other way, you see, there is no smooth superhighway that leads right into Christmas any more than there is a way to give birth to a baby without any discomfort or outright pain.
"He went about...proclaiming a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins". This crazy honey-bearded, locust-filled wild man named John was all about showing the way to Christmas, that was his whole being and purpose in life, and if he had lived in our time I have a hunch he'd be filling in potholes with Cheerios, one by one, making the way to Christmas, which is a difficult and time-consuming task, most especially because the road you build is inside your heart, and that is a greater jungle, has more dangerous potholes than any on the earth.
Making the way to Christmas is the whole point of Advent, cutting a path through all the crap, all the stupid stuff, all the mountains and valleys we've created for ourselves, all the petty little jealousies, all the self-righteousness, the pretenses and the fears, all the greed and lust and resentments and hatreds we've nurtured. The whole point of Advent is to clean it all out, straighten up the space, purify the place, and in doing so, suddenly, the way to Christmas, indeed Christmas itself, is right there, right here, where it always is even though we couldn't see it. You hack your way through all the crap, you part the underbrush, and there, just as peaceful and beautiful as-you-please, is a little baby offering you more love than you can bear.
Last night, after the 4pm Mass, I went outside to see where we could put a little manger scene amidst the Christmas tree forest. There were Santacon Santas around everywhere. A lot of them had obviously already visited a bunch of bars. As I was kneeling down next to the statues of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus at the big tree on the plaza, I heard a voice behind me.
“This is so beautiful”, he said.
I turned around to see a Santa standing there alone. He looked like one of my college students.
“I remember going with my grandpa every year to a tree farm to cut down our Christmas tree almost as big as this one,” he said. “It was always cold, and hard work, but I loved it.”
I nodded and smiled, and we both admired the tree for a moment, and I when I looked at him, I could see in his eyes the innocence of the little boy he once was.
He looked like he was getting a little teary-eyed, and was somewhere else for a moment. “Yeah,” he said, “my grandpa…” but he was interrupted by the shouts of his fellow Santcon Santas. “Come on, dude…we’ve got more places to go.” He smiled at me, and thanked me—for what, I’m not sure.
“God bless you,” I said as he joined his fellow revelers.
The way to Christmas sometimes calls you back to your innocence, doesn’t it? The way is not down 2nd Avenue or the next bar. The way to Christmas is in your heart, where something wants to be born. Shall we give it birth this Advent, bring him to all of us, fill in the potholes and bring him to birth?