Well, the Grinch almost did it this year, again! “Who?” you ask, “Did what?” Well, don’t you remember that grumbling gremlin in the children’s classic Christmas story by Dr. Seuss? How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a story in rhyme that has fascinated at least a couple of generations of children since it came out in 1957. The Grinch is a hairy, paw-footed, pot-bellied, grumpy old thing whose attitude and story reminds us, a little bit, of Scrooge in Dickens’ earlier tale.
The story takes place in the mythical town of Who-ville where live a people called Who. It starts out like this.
Down in Who-ville
Liked Christmas a lot . . .
But the Grinch,
Who lived just north of Who-ville
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small. (1)
As the story goes, the Grinch decides to stop Christmas, once and for all. It’s just too noisy with too many Whos singing and joyful. The Grinch stages a reverse Santa Claus routine. On Christmas Eve he dresses like Santa, strings reindeer horns on the head of his poor dog named Max and heads off to Who-ville to de-rail Christmas. He steals all the Whos’ presents, their Christmas trees and even the food they had planned for their Christmas feast, the goodies and yummies and even the roast beast. He gets it all, every scrap of Christmas and heads back up his mountain.
But then, to the surprise of the grouchy Grinch, Christmas comes anyway. No presents, no trees, no feast in the making, but the Whos, despite this, are all celebrating. The Grinch learns something amazing. It isn’t about the presents and all the trimmings, either on the tree or on the table. It’s really quite simple. Christmas in Who-ville is all about the size of one’s heart. Because that’s where Christmas really comes from.
Here’s the moment of truth when it hits the Grinch:
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
(Christmas) came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps. . . means a little bit more!” (2)
We get so tied up in knots over Christmas – too much to do, not enough time or money, too many expectations to meet, too many expectations unmet. The Thanksgiving turkey carcass has hardly made it to the stewpot before we start the countdown to Christmas morning.
We focus on what we think has to be done to make Christmas happen. Then we knock ourselves and our pocketbooks out to make it so. So we get grumpy and tired and argue over parking places at the mall. We snap at store clerks who can’t help it that they just ran out of Hummer II remote-controlled vehicles about an hour ago. We lose our breath when the credit card bill comes in. We yell at the dog and the kid as they wrestle near the Christmas tree and two Christopher Radko ornaments crash to the floor. Or we sit and wait for the phone to ring, or just the right gift to come, or just the right person or party to make the Christmas season bright. We curse when UPS loses an important gift that we special-ordered or when the mail doesn’t bring a gift we hoped someone out there would send us. We get mad when the scotch tape runs out at midnight on Christmas Eve. We question our sanity that we’re still wrapping presents at midnight on Christmas Eve. Or we cry because we have nothing to wrap and nobody to send a present to.
And if there really was a Grinch, he’d chuckle to himself as he watched us and he’d say gleefully, “Gotcha! I stole your Christmas spirit away.” And the singing, joyful “Who” inside of us, rolls up in a little ball and hides.
Well, this morning is Christmas day. So it’s all over, isn’t it? The presents have been opened and they either worked or they didn’t. And the wrapping paper and scotch tape and torn ribbons and now empty boxes are either still strewn around the Christmas tree or thrown tidily away in the trash can out back. Folks are either happy or sad with what they got or didn’t get. And some people out there have already checked out the after-Christmas sales that start as early as 6 a.m. tomorrow (Sunday) morning at Richmond area stores. Just the time to get those half-priced Christmas wrappings and ribbons for next year, isn’t it?
Christmas – we’ve taken something simple and beautiful and made it complicated and messy and burdensome. Christmas – we’ve shaped it with our consumer, competitive mentality. Christmas – we’ve molded it carefully into graven images we can seek and acquire and dance before. Christmas – we’ve wrapped it with great expectations and expensive bows and ribbons and boxed it all up. And then we’re surprised when we open our store-bought Christmas, caress the latest “toy” or “treasure” we had to have and discover that even this is not quite enough. It just doesn’t quite fill us up.
Whatever our store-bought Christmas turns out to be, you know, it tarnishes over time. Or it gets lost among all the other stuff. Or it breaks. Or it gets used up. Or it goes out of style. Or it doesn’t fit. Or we love it for awhile and then tire of it and discard it. Or we eat it and are hungry a couple of hours later. Whatever it is it’s not enough.
What is Christmas really all about? What is it our heart longs for as the perfect gift? What fills up the emptiness in each one of us? What fills up the God-shaped hole that the Divine built into each of us at birth? What will satisfy the deep, unsatisfied longing that ultimately God dreamed would lead us back to him?
The Gospel of Luke gives us the answer. It’s a midnight gift. It’s a simple one. It’s heralded by the voices of a host of angels. It’s sent to a flock of simple shepherds, milling about on the outskirts of Bethlehem . It’s a gift from the womb of a teenage girl who has given birth to a boy child and laid him in a feeding trough filled with straw – an image that infuses our Eucharist every Sunday, “This is my body, take, eat, and live!” It’s the gift of a baby who is destined to change the world. It’s a gift to ponder, not to muddle in our heads, but cradle in our hearts. It’s is a gift that makes a long ago husband-to-be stand straight and give a child a name and a royal heritage. It’s a gift glowing in the tremulous light of four hundred candles lighted one at a time that warmed our darkness last night at the midnight service. It’s a gift that blinds us in a snow bank of tiny white angels who stood on these very steps last Sunday night. It stuns us in the silence of baby Corsello, the Christ stand-in who slept peacefully in the arms of young Mother Mahoney, the blue garbed Mary in our St. James’s pageant. It rests in the plea of a worried pageant director who said to a nearby priest, “Pray for us!” and the two of us did, asking God for joy in the reenactment of a stable scene from so long ago. It’s a gift that turns a three day liturgical traffic jam occasioned by Christmas falling on a Saturday into a joyful celebration that just keeps us going and plunges us deep into a nativity not only in Bethlehem but in ourselves.
What is Christmas really all about? The answer lies in a simple stable on a Christmas night – a scene glistening in the light of a Christmas star, though shadowed by the twilight of a looming cross. It has nothing to do with Hecht’s or Saks Fifth Avenue , or Schwarzschilds’s or Nordstrom’s or Toy’s R.Us. or L. L. Bean or whatever is in labeled boxes. It has everything to do with what’s in our hearts. Our hearts – they’re what we are called to open – not just on Christmas day but on every day of the year.
Today is the first day of Christmas. Christmas has just begun. Open your hearts and let it take you over. There’s a bit of the Grinch in each of us. “Bah, humbug!” the Grinch whispers. But we can just pat him on his pointed little head and say, “Never mind, leave us be to welcome and live the Christmas spirit that is cradled inside. Open that heart that is two sizes too small, old Grinch. Listen to the angel music and join in the joyful noise of Christmas Day.”
May we stretch out our hearts this morning and let the Christ child enter in. May He be born in us today and live within us forever.
(1) and (2) Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Random House, New York , 1957