By now folks likely have all their Christmas decorations up. Trees have been trimmed with shiny garland and memorable ornaments. Wreathes adorn the doors and colored lights glow brightly outdoors. Perhaps somewhere in the house is a Nativity scene, still awaiting placement of the baby Jesus on December 25.
Christmas is undoubtedly the most “spectacular” holiday of the year. That claim rings true in a theological sense when we consider the cosmic-altering event being commemorated. As St. John Paul II boldly pronounced in the first line of his first encyclical, “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history.”
But the spectacular quality of Christmas may be even more obvious, to more people, in terms of social communications. Spectacles have always been around, but in our age of new media, where image seems to be everything, this seasonal holiday shines with a special appeal.
In “Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age” (Crossway, 2019), Tony Reinke explains the power of any spectacle to capture our attention, to hold us together in a collective gaze, and to call forth from us a lived response.
Realizing that we are bombarded with an incessant stream of images about politics or sports or commerce, we can readily concur with his claim that “the human heart bends toward what the eye sees.” Indeed, marketing professionals count on the fact that visual images “get inside us, shape us, and form our lives.”
But the reason spectacles affect us so profoundly lies not so much in the creative ingenuity with which they are produced, nor in the technological prowess with which they are disseminated. Rather, as Reinke notes, “The true power of spectacles is in what we think they offer us … (in) the power of the image to make demands on us (that) originates in the attention that we devote to it.”
Images of Christmas display that power. They offer us light and joy, good cheer and genuine merriment. They inspire happiness and hope. They bring warmth to a wintry season.
But what makes us so devoted to the spectacle of Christmas is not the entertainment given to our eyes. “The Great Christmas Light Fight” may make for holiday television, but its premise renders it nothing more than a banal attempt to capitalize on the human penchant for competition and desire for prizes — both signs of an inherent greed that runs counter to the true spirit of the season.
Instead, the Christmas spectacles we cherish offer enchantment to our imagination. Jolly old St. Nick, Rudolf with his red nose, the friends round Charlie Brown on stage, and George Bailey’s guardian angel all make for “a wonderful life” this time of year by stirring within us the sense of kindness, illumination, appreciation, and insight that we value with more than seasonal regard.
For Christians, at least, no image appears greater these days than the Nativity scene. While some scholars have raised interesting questions about its historical details, the Franciscan tradition has bequeathed to us a way to bring that biblical scene to life in an adorable and admirable way.
In his recent apostolic letter on the meaning and importance of this sign of the times, Pope Francis rightly notes how the Christmas crèche helps us to imagine what took place on that starry night in Bethlehem. In doing so, he says, “it touches our hearts and makes us enter into salvation history as contemporaries of an event that is living and real in a broad gamut of historical and cultural contexts.”
In other words, the Nativity scene functions as a most worthwhile spectacle. Giving it a place of prominence among the many household decorations is a vivid way to pass on the faith to families and visitors alike.
As the pope puts it, “Beginning in childhood, and at every stage of our lives, it teaches us to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with him, his children, brothers and sisters all, thanks to that Child who is the Son of God and the Son of the Virgin Mary. And to realize that in that knowledge we find true happiness.”
And finding true happiness, in the God-given joy that can extend throughout the year, is the best spectacle of all.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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