Excerpted from Holidays and Holy Nights with permission of Quest Books.

People sometimes cry as they sing "Silent Night" at the end of a Christmas Eve service. Their five-year-old selves, the little mystics that live inside them, stir to life again and tear away the cobwebs that have shrouded their hearts over the past year. Christmas Eve shows what all the sacred times of the Church Year are like when they come alive and are genuinely experienced. And since sacred times are any time when God slips into our lives, Christmas Eve is a dramatization of the possibility in any moment. It is the zero point of the spiritual year, the place where the great spiral that the sun traces in the sky winds down until it comes to the point where there is no time, where the day and the year end and begin, the place where we end and begin. There's a human problem with Christmas. When people write enthusiastically about timeless moments and spiritual experiences, it can actually have the effect of shutting their readers down. Many people come to Christmas each year wanting that great experience, yet never finding it. Because Christmas is the one point of sacred time that is also a part of our popular culture, it tends to backfire. What if the great moment goes by and we're tired or drunk or arguing with our spouse, or loaded with worry, sadness, or fear? What if the heart of the night doesn't open for us? In a way, Christmas is valued disproportionately, because most people don't have a single other ritual of sacred time in the whole year to help them distribute and develop the meaning of Christmas. This is why a new familiarity with the Year of the Lord can help the hurt that more and more people apparently associate with Christmas.
Sacred times are not necessarily extraordinary fairy-tale moments or spectacular altered states of consciousness. They are not given only to special people; they are not unusual. You live them every moment, even right now as you read this book. The moments of Christ are the material out of which everybody's lives are made. "A people without history cannot be redeemed from time," T S. Eliot wrote, "because history is a pattern of timeless moments." It is your history, made up of nothing but timeless moments, that redeems you from time. In the same way, as you go through a holiday, sacred time happens whether you feel it or not. You bustle through your Christmas obligations, right up to and maybe past midnight. Rest assured that above you, under you, inside you, the moment of Christmas is happening. "[T]he movement of this silent cataclysm," as Thomas Merton says, goes on. Sometime in the holy night something new happens, "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices." The chronological clock-tick of midnight on Christmas Eve will come and go many times in your life without being a big moment. There is a spiritual principle that the more you want the big moment, the less likely you are to have it. This causes a lot of frustration and disappointment among people trying to practice a spiritual life, and at Christmastime, this disappointment spreads through the general public. If you don't get your big payoff at Christmas, it can sour you on the possibility of meaning and transcendence in general.
To experience Christmas at Christmas is a grace, a phenomenon that human will cannot make happen. The miraculous event of Christmas night is something that happens outside of time. All that any person can do is to observe the moment, in both senses of the word--the way we talk about observing a holiday, and to observe as in "to watch." To honor and observe the event of Christmas night is to build a ring of quiet around it, treading softly and slowly. As Christmas Eve day grows dark, give Christmas midnight its due. Give it space. Don't try to actualize some notion of a perfect atmosphere. Make one effort toward listening, watching, and observing, and you will be rewarded in some way. Christmas, after all, is living, multifaceted, many layered. Christmas is not, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, just a "Scandinavian festival of peace." It is also a moment of extreme crisis, as reflected in the gospel stories of King Herod and his soldiers, who massacre the male children of Bethlehem in the hope of eliminating Jesus. Herod represents the forces of darkness, like the gathering winter gloom that seems more powerful than the glimmer of Christmas starlight. Herod is very much alive in our world--you can read about his exploits any day, in any newspaper. Chesterton says we should imagine the cave-stable of Jesus' birth as an outlaw hideout or a hidden rebel camp, the bells of Christmas night as distant cannons of a liberating army that are a signal for the resistance to rise up and cut the power lines and blow the rails.
Christmas is a crisis, but at this darkest hour of the darkest night, the tide begins to turn.

Christmas Eve has a kind of suspense. The Son of Man comes like a thief in the night, and so does Santa Claus. Christmas Eve is when everything hangs in the balance for Ebenezer Scrooge, the night he sees ghosts and faces his own death. It is a last-minute impossible rescue from certain darkness. This is another theological truth that children know. "But in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." It translates here below as profound peace. Something enormous is going on, but it means us and our loved ones very clearly. It is just downstairs, by the tree, by the fire, just outside your door, in the sweet starlit darkness.

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