Christmas is the great feast of condescension. In common speech today, Ňto be condescending" is a phrase with all sorts of negative connotations. We think of some snob pretending to be just Ňone of the gangÓ and doing it with an air that manifests a lack of sincerity. But the word really means something like "coming down to be with." And for Christians, that is what God did in a stable in Bethlehem--God came down to join us humans, to become one of us, to throw in his lot with us. So the idea of incarnation-God becoming human--can properly be thought of as God being condescending to humanity.
Each Christmas Eve is my family's attempt to live out the idea of God's condescension by all of us condescending to one another. Of course, there are family get-togethers throughout the year; for example, at Thanksgiving. But Christmas Eve is different. We go to Mass at 6 p.m. and then head home for a dinner that I spend most of the day cooking. But that dinner actually began several days earlier because I try to make sure that I have everyone's favorite things. Since two of my sons are Puerto Rican, I buy pasteles, a Puerto Rican favorite especially popular at Christmastime, at a little place in Rochester, New York, and prepare them for Gualberto and Angel. I also make sure that we have cold bottles of malta, a Puerto Rican drink.
Of all the pastas (we start every holiday meal with pasta) that I make, my boys like lasagna the best, so I spend much of the two days before Christmas Eve making the sauces that go into it. One of the young men whom I helped to raise loves kiwi ice cream.So I make it for Christmas Eve; and since he is diabetic, I make some with sugar and some with artificial sweetener. Several of the kids I've helped to raise are Asian, so I stop at Asian stores to get special treats for them. Thus, we had Korean candy as well as coconut, soy bean, and pennywort soda. Since there are several family members who donŐt drink alcohol, I get bottles of non-alcoholic wine to complement the Italian red and white wines that several of the kids and my mom so enjoy.
After dinner, we re-arrange the furniture and watch a movie. This is the portion of the night when everyone is condescending to me. I choose the movie, and they watch it and at least pretend to enjoy it because they know how important that is to me. Some of the kids would probably not rank watching a two-hour movie with no sex or violence as a high priority any night of the year. But for this one evening they watch without a grumble. This might be my most pleasurable two hours of the year. No one is doing anything except watching the movie. We are all in one anotherŐs presence without anyone running off to soccer practice or talking on the phone.
I watch the movie and laugh, this year at the antics of the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers. I feel the presence of everyone and hear their distinctive laughs. The gift of those two hours of time "just being together" is much more important to me than anything that I unwrapped after the movie. All of the evening's activities could appear on the surface to be purely secular. I could have described the way we treat one another that night as "being considerate" rather than as condescending, for example. And we ate till we were all stuffed, hardly an imitation of the way Mary and Joseph must have eaten as they traveled and found themselves without a place to stay. And the movie had no religious themes or inspiring messages; after all, the Marx Brothers movies are not much like The Ten Commandments or Jesus of Nazareth.
However, our Christmas Eve was profoundly Christian and spiritual. this is primarily so because in our own odd and imperfect ways, we all sought to be condescending. We all reached out to be with one another as each person is, not simply as we would like that person to be. We all made special efforts to make one another feel happy and wanted and respected and loved.
That is exactly what God did through the mystery of the incarnation. God joined the human race on Christmas. What we do in imitation of that act is to join one another in new and intimate ways, even though the symbols of that imitation--pasteles and strange sodas, in my case--appear on the surface to be idiosyncratic and trivial.
When God joined the human race, God understood the meaning of that act. For example, god knew that people loved to eat and that they loved slapstick comedy. After all, there are all sorts of references to banquets in the Old Testament; and the Romans, who governed Palestine in Jesus' time, knew how to have a great feast. Two of the best slapstick comic writers of all time, Plautus and Terence, lived not long before JesusŐ birth. God didnŐt become human in order to wipe out celebrating and laughing. God became human to give all human activities new meaning.
God became human to show how "secular" activities can be acts of piety because they can be acts of sharing and loving. God became human to show us the largest contexts and meanings of our mundane activities.
Lasagne and the Marx Brothers seem an odd way to celebrate Christmas. But the whole point is that when infused by condescending love, just about any activities and foods are proper ways to live and to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. I thank God for joining us each Christmas. Had he been physically present on Oak Street in Geneseo, he would have loved the lasagne and belly-laughed at the antics of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo!