“The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” Isaiah 9:1-6.
We have seen a great light!
Days ago, a large, spiral cloud formation was in the southwest sky over the Pacific Ocean, and according to the Carmel Pine Cone: “it could have been caused by a rocket launch, or by a meteor deflected by the atmosphere, or by aliens. “ What does the Pine Cone know that we don’t?
Without a doubt, from ancient times to this very moment, we carry within us wonders that we see around us.
Christmas is a time for wonder! Each generation makes a case for Christmas and its wonder. Join me in making a case for Christmas this year.
Considering the festivities of this night, I’ll be brief. Let’s discuss: the manger, the movie, and the birthday!
First, let me talk about the manger. Sometimes called a crèche or in Italian the “percepio.”
Friends of mine from my former parish in Moraga, Laura and Larry sent me this elegant Christmas card. It’s a foldout greeting card of a nativity scene from the Neapolitan Baroque collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In writing to me, Laura asks: “We are making cioppino for Christmas. We will do a repeat if we can get you up here in early 2019?”
Larry and I were in NYC in early December and saw the percepio – so amazing. My maternal grandmother was born in Naples, so I’m very partial to all things Neapolitan.”
Well, so am I, Laura. My entire family history and genetic code are bound to its roots in Southern Italy, and just outside of Naples, and in the provincial town of Avellino.
This is the place where my cousin the late Don Robert D’Amore was the abbot of the famed Montevirgine Abbey in Avellino. His remains are buried alongside the other deceased abbots going back to 13th century.
Just steps from his burial site is the abbey’s museum with its art collection of Neapolitan precepe in which precious miniature Nativity scenes of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – with their likenesses in clay, along with the townspeople, shepherd boys, the Magi, the angelic host as well as the musicians entertain the sleeping infant Jesus. In effect, these mangers are the LEGOLAND or Disneyland of religious practice.
Today, craft artists in Naples have updated the nativity scenes to include statuettes of favored members of fiercely competitive Italian soccer teams. Here’s a link to Andrew Keh’s recent article entitled “Christmastime in Naples with Jesus, Mary & Ronaldo.”
By 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi constructed the first of these scenes – as a crib or crèche for the Christ child.
Francis’s idea was to encourage believers to enter more fully into the nativity in which all participants as well as the barnyard of oxen and mules praise the God of all creation and welcome the birth of this child and all children.
In her note, Laura mentions the cioppino, and as many of you already know on Christmas Eve, Italian-Americans keep the custom of the “feast of seven fishes.”
This brings me to part two, the movie.
I’m proud to say that the new film, “The Green Book” stars Mahershala Ali, a former student of mine at Saint Mary’s College. Along with Viggo Morgensen, they play an “odd couple” on the road, in the South and during the turbulent times of the 1960’s civil right movement.
At the Saint Mary’s College premiere of “The Green Book” with Mahershala Ali and me and my Cut Focus, LLC video production team of Jake Slonecker, Karen Hernadez & Carlos Torres, Rheem Theater, Moraga, October 25, 2018. To the right, in the light-blue jacket, you have a glimpse of director Peter Farrelly.
This is the story of Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga, the driver and bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley, famed African American jazz and classical pianist. The premise of the film is that Shirley is going on tour in the South, and Vallelonga has been hired to keep their dates secure for the booking agency and to return safely to New York.
Without giving too much away, it’s about how these two men changed one another’s lives coming to an emotional conclusion back home in the Bronx on a snowy Christmas Eve; and yes the family is seated at the dinner table and it’s the “feast of the seven fishes.” Well, the accuracy of the visualization of this scene matches my grandparent’s home in Newark, N.J. So much so, I could smell the fish!
The point of this film is that Christmas has the power to change prejudgments and prejudice, and help enlarge our families and relationships to include new friends at the table of plenty.
A few film critics think this movie may be old fashioned and too sentimental. Not for me, sentiment has its place in film, music, and even in our sacramental liturgy.
Art forms can be wellsprings for minds and hearts that need constant refreshment to grow our imagination and the chance to reach an even higher spiritual realm.
The last item on my list in making a case for Christmas is December 26th, the “day after Christmas,” my birthday.
Yes, my birthday is the day after Christmas, probably the most inconvenient of days. Why?
For most of my younger life, I’ve heard “Michael, this is your Christmas gift and your birthday gift?” Really, how might my odds increase and receive a bounty of birthday treasures if my birthday had strategically landed on June 25th? I’ll never know.
One birthday of mine had a very unforeseen celebration. It was December 26th, 1947. My second birthday coincided with the most significant snowfall in the climate history of New Jersey and New York. 26.4 inches fell in the New York Metropolitan area with snowdrifts of 10 feet according to Wikipedia.
Because of the snowfall, none of my family members and young cousins came to the planned gathering. The food and the cake had arrived but not the relatives.
Naturally, at that age, I have no recollection of that day, except for the photographs and my parent’s memory.
In these black and white photos of me blowing out the two-candles atop the cake, I’m surrounded by my mom and dad and a cast of strangers in the dining room on the second floor postwar WWII cold-water flat in Newark, N.J.
How did they pull this off? Like the character George Bailey in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” my dad whose name was Joe figured that if we had the makings of a party, let’s party!
So despite the snowdrifts, he walked his way down to the Delevan Avenue bus depot where he gathered stranded bus drivers and their passengers and walked them to back to the apartment and the party in my honor.
Sheltered from the snow, they celebrated together that night until the plows opened the streets to traffic and brought Newark, N.J. back to its normal routine that day in December so long ago.
Years later, examining these photographs with my mother, I would ask her who are these people?
Laughing at this curious set of strangers, and my mother looking into this glimpse of the past simply admitted that she could recollect only a few names.
It’s the sentiment and the memory about that day that still linger and reminds us to reach out to others — to those who we know and to the many people don’t know that truly make this Christmas day universal and even possible.
So the case for Christmas is about the invitation and a change of heart.
Mostly Christmas is about the adoration of “a child of wonder” the Christ whose life continues to renew us in faith, hope and love — on this Christmas and every Christmas.
The Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA