There is a story told in Holland, perhaps more mythical than true. It runs this way:
There was an old church. For many years, upon entering it, every-one would stop and bow in the direction of a whitewashed wall. No-body knew exactly why anybody did that, but everyone had been doing it for such a long time that nobody questioned it. It was tradition. Besides, there was something fitting about doing it. It felt right.
One day, the parish decided to renovate the church. Among other things, they began to strip the paint and whitewash off the old walls. While doing this, they discovered traces of a painting on the wall that everyone bowed to. They became very careful and peeled off the paint gently so as not to damage what was beneath it. Slowly, a very beautiful centuries-old painting of Christ emerged. Nobody alive was old enough to have actually seen it before. It had been white-washed over for at least a century. Yet everyone had been bowing to it, not knowing why, but sensing that there was good reason for the reverence.
There is a Christmas lesson in that. Western culture still bows towards the crib of Bethlehem. We may be post-Christian in our beliefs, our attitudes, our ethics, and our policies, but we still celebrate Christmas. Like the people in that church in Holland, we are not really clear any more as to why we are doing what we are doing. There is not much conscious faith left in our Christmas celebrations, just a habitual response to a tradition.
But - as the story of the painting recovered in a church in Holland can teach us - that’s not all bad. It’s better than not bowing to the wall at all. At least we still have the sense that there is something special beneath the whitewash.
If we are among the ones who still know that there is a painting of Christ behind the whitewash, our response should not be one of cynicism. The Christian choice at Christmas is not: do we celebrate or not? Of course we celebrate and we should be happy that the world is still making a big deal out of Christ’s birth, even if it isn’t so clear any more as to why.
Our task is not to stop the bowing or the celebration. Our task is to help peel off the whitewash, to help restore the painting beneath it, and to tell the story of who did the painting and why.
You criticize the bad by the practice of the better. The best way to help our culture to celebrate Christmas properly is not by criticizing how it celebrates, nor by ourselves ceasing to celebrate, but by celebrating in a better way.
Let our joy exceed that of the commercial world! Let our bow be deeper and more aware of the marvellous gift that’s behind the whitewash: the gift of the Incarnation of our God!
Reflection on the Epiphany by the Canadian Oblate priest Ron Rolheiser
Click here for his website