By Michael Baruzzini - Southern Tennessee, USA - 29 November 2011
Everyone goes home for Christmas, if not in fact, at least in thought or memory. From the singing of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” to watching It’s a Wonderful Life, the image of home is ubiquitous. The Catholic response to this can be ambivalent. While emphasizing home and family in a materialistic culture is something no Catholic would discourage, it is also true that the “family celebration” aspect of Christmas can overtake its Christological significance: Christmas becomes the holiday where we all gather together to celebrate love and giving -- oh, and there’s also this old tale about a baby or something. Celebrating “giving” and “family” can give the secularist cover as he buries the embarrassing religious side of the holiday. To the extent that “family togetherness” represents Christmas as a merely secular celebration, the homecoming aspect of the season calls to be transcended.
Yet despite this caution, Christmas and home seem somehow to naturally go together. When the religious elements are put properly into place, homecoming seems to be a natural addition to Christmas, not a distraction. Some deep element is common to both family and the religious memorial. The very idea of “going home” has a primordial hold on the soul, as evidenced by its perennial use in literature. Scripture itself begins with man in a garden home, and ends with a vision of a heavenly homecoming in the New Jerusalem. In the gospel of John, Christ promises that God’s mansion has many rooms, and Scripture is replete with images of Heaven as a familial feast. The Psalms, in some of their most eloquent passages, speak of the sublime desire to dwell in the house of the Lord, where “even the swallow finds a nest for her young.” Perhaps the most poignant image of family and home lies in the Judeo-Christian identification of the Creator not just as a distant God, but as Father.
Home presents itself as the solution to the two questions that are central to the human experience. We all want to know where we came from, and where we are going. The applicability of these questions to religion is obvious. God is both our Creator and our end. Yet the centrality of the questions is seen when even those who give no thought to religion invoke them in every field of endeavor from science and history to literature and art. The questions ask about meaning, meaning derived from both origin and purpose. Home is the answer. Home is that from which we emerge. It is that at which we aim. When asked, we say that we value family and home more than money, fame, or other measures of success -- no matter how much our actions may belie this claim. All else are means. Home is the end. Home is like God, our Alpha and Omega.
In Hilaire Belloc’s story The Four Men, this spirit is captured by the character of “The Poet.” Belloc’s tale recounts the journey of a man called “Myself” and his three uncanny companions as they walk across Sussex, Belloc’s homeland. The companions march across the countryside over three days in the fall, covering the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, discussing deep questions of life along the way. The Poet volunteers that the idea of Home is a driving force for all: "Whatever you read in all the writings of men, and whatever you hear in all the speech of men, and whatever you notice in the eyes of men, of expression or reminiscence or desire, you will see nothing in any man's speech or writing or expression to match that which marks his hunger for home." We remember it from our childhood, our origin. We seek to recreate it in our future, in making our own home or preparing for our guests on holidays.
Going home is an intensely time-bound and particular event. Belloc’s home was Sussex of the early twentieth century. In the twenty-first, I go home to Tennessee (or Virginia, my wife’s home). You may go home to Maine or California or Mexico. I go home to see both parents, with several siblings still at home. You might have just one or none of your parents alive, and turn instead to siblings, cousins, or friends. Perhaps your trip home might be no more than a phone call from a distant city street or an e-mail from a camouflaged tent in the deserts of ancient Mesopotamia, not far from where the events that Christmas commemorates occurred. Your trip home might even be nothing more than a memory of a younger and happier time. In every case, though, some connection exists between home as both an actual place and time, and Home as a mythical realm. Following C. S. Lewis, mythical here does not mean untrue. Rather it means some formal element of our story that gives a meaning to the whole. Advent and Christmas are like life and death, respectively. Life is fundamentally a process of waiting and becoming, while death is a fulfillment. Advent too is about anticipation, Christmas homecoming is also fulfillment.
In Belloc’s story, The Poet’s romantic notions of Home are met by the quiet melancholy of fellow-traveler Grizzlebeard, an old and world-weary man. "Indeed I have each time remembered my boyhood, and each time I have been glad to come home,” says Grizzlebeard, “But I have never found it to be a final gladness.” We are always seeking to have; yet when we have we are disappointed. No finite thing is enough to satisfy us, and yet no unending search is satisfying either. Death is frightening because it is a loss of the goods that we know; yet the goods that we know are also unsatisfying because they are not enough. Death is the central problem of mankind. In seeking freedom from the fear of death we seek a certainty which, by its very nature, can only be had in death itself. Death is the only solution to its own problem. At the end of Belloc’s story, just before the group breaks up and the companions vanish into a numinous mist, Grizzlebeard tells Myself: "I who am old will give you advice, which is this -- to consider chiefly from now onward those permanent things which are, as it were, the shores of this age and the harbours of our glittering and pleasant but dangerous and wholly changeful sea."
Natural things participate in the eternal. The form of our celebration manifests that which we celebrate. When we go home for Christmas, we return to our origin, we settle for a moment into our future. We do this to celebrate the event that makes homecoming, in the eternal sense, possible. "There is no such thing as a feast 'without Gods,’” wrote philosopher Josef Pieper. “There is no such thing as a feast that does not ultimately derive its life from divine worship, and that does not draw its vitality as a feast from divine worship.... However dim the recollections of the association may have become in men's minds, a feast 'without Gods' and unrelated to worship, is quite simply unknown." Earthly homecomings both touch something deep, as The Poet knew, and serve as images of a greater satisfaction in the waiting. Yet they still, as Grizzlebeard experienced, leave something wanting. On Christmas, Home came to us, and began the story that leads to the ultimate homecoming. God’s arrival in our world does not end the mystery, but it does reveal an extended hand. The Incarnational events of Christmas allowed man to finally “go home,” to return to his origin and reach his destiny in God.