Buon Natale: The Blessings of an Early Christmas

By The Right Reverend Susan Bell

I’m supposed to be writing a sermon today. But I’m preoccupied with something I saw on my way to the office this morning and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I saw a Christmas ornament—a large one—in an Italian neighbourhood. It said “Buon Natale!”  Now I know that the ornament, which had been up for at least a week at this point, was in reality there to inaugurate the much vaunted, much anticipated Christmas Shopping Season. I realize that. And I realize that it is even more vaunted and anticipated this year after a year of soul—and wallet—depressing pandemic.

The ornament was nothing in itself; literally, business as usual. That is, until I united it in my mind with the inevitable singers of the seasonal “it’s too early for Christmas decorations and music” song.  This lament has joined forces with the chorus of the preemptive “it’s Advent first, not Christmas” folks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and anywhere else that will hear the complaint. It seems early this year.  

They’re right, of course.

But I’ve learned with advancing age that sometimes it’s just not good enough to be right. I’ve learned that there are more important things—like being compassionate, letting the little things ride, and celebrating the good.

And I just wonder if the world actually needs an early Christmas this year? It does rather seem we’ve been in constant Advent in recent years. And I wonder if we don’t just need the Christ Child a little more than usual right now?

Buon Natale literally means “good birth.” That’s beautiful. That’s really beautiful. Because, of course, the birth of which the saying speaks is Jesus’. Jesus the son of God, whose taking on of human flesh proves that God loves us completely.

The writer Ann Lamott talks about all truth being a paradox, of pain and beauty, longing and fulfillment, suffering and rejoicing all mixed together for us to pass through. She says, “life is both a precious and unfathomably beautiful gift—and it’s impossible here, on the incarnational side of things.”[1]

I think the feast of the Incarnation—Jesus literally taking on flesh, just like ours, becoming human to show us what God’s love looks and feels like—is an acknowledgement of that. God could have come to us in a different way than as a human being. But God did not. God came in the most transparent, most effective, most vulnerable, most un-powerful way God could. God came as a human to speak words and perform deeds that we could understand, and to suffer as we do; to yearn and rage and weep just as we do. God came as a human to feel alongside us and to pull the best feelings and actions from us. God came as a human so that God’s love could not be misunderstood. God came as a human to be a guide to the things of God, as a teacher of hard but ultimate truth, as a healer of physical and existential pain, and, ultimately and sacrificially, as our Saviour.

Jesus showed us how God’s love can first transform us, and then, as we offer it to others, everyone around us—and eventually our world.  That was his mission: to help us join God’s mission of love, to join heaven and earth in healing and peace.

“Good birth” indeed!

So, I’m not at all upset that despite the retail season, Christmas retains the meaning of the feast of the incarnation, against all odds—even if it survives in words like “joy” and “peace” and “hope” written on cheesy mugs, tinselly ornaments, and vaguely spiritual greeting cards. After all, believersknow what it all means. And these things act as signposts and breadcrumbs that lead to the real deal. Let us be glad that the emanations of Christ’s glory still reach through the powers and principalities of this world.

Perhaps I might make a suggestion this year, of all years: maybe we celebrate the light in the darkness with joy and thanksgiving as soon as it comes, and let’s not worry about our insider baseball concerns and the need to be liturgically correct. Let’s throw up the lights and baubles and turn up the music on the all-Christmas-all-the-time radio and give thanks to the God who loves us so much that she sent her only begotten and precious son so that we might know what total and sacrificial love feels like. And so that we might offer that love open-heartedly and open-handedly to our neighbours and pray that that love overcomes all darkness in this time and forevermore.

Buon Natale!

+S


[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_lamott_12_truths_i_learned_from_life_and_writing?language=en#t-156372