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Keep an Eye on the Camel

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By Felix Carroll (Dec 19, 2015)
I recall being a demoralized, Christmas pageant-participating 9-year-old cast as a camel to some other little twerp's wise man, and in retrospect, therein lies a lesson of Christmas: Someone has to carry the water.

Yes, the memory of strapping on a hump or two and being led by a tether is a suitable entry point to have a frank discussion this Advent on Jesus Christ and our responsibilities as Christians.

Full disclosure: I wasn't raised in a particularly dogmatic home. We went to weekly Mass, but our parents (bless them) gave no indication of the possibility of having a close and personal relationship with Jesus. The only person we knew who would speak about Godly things with zero hesitation and zero provocation was our grandmother, an apron-wearing, multitasking, unflappable fixed point in her own haphazard household.

"Jesus will help you. Just ask," she would advise. "I speak to Him all the time." What she meant by that, of course, was that she would speak to Him in prayer, and He would speak to her in her heart. But she never clarified that, and I would imagine Jesus sitting each morning on a stool at her kitchen counter, leaning on an elbow, sipping coffee, black, no sugar, listening to this kindly woman and nodding in agreement that the world is a mess. But, He would assure her, "I have a plan."

It sounded fun but kind of nutty. Still, it was no nuttier than in my own home where Jesus was understood as some faraway uncle — perhaps a frankincense and myrrh prospector who hit it big out West — who quietly subsidized the good works of Santa Claus.

In terms of trying to understand who Jesus was, it didn't help matters that my siblings and I would flip the channels on Sunday mornings and come across soon-to-be disgraced televangelists making business-like ultimatums before rapt audiences in suburban coliseums. The preachers would have their wives nearby nodding the entire time, wearing smiles that seemed suspended in place by block and tackle. To us, it was spectacle, not spiritual. We got the sense from those preachers that Jesus didn't ride into Jerusalem on a donkey but rather was driven into Atlanta in a limo.

The Jesus they presented certainly wasn't the Jesus we would thankfully come to know, the Jesus who, through St. Faustina, invites "aching mankind to snuggle close to My merciful Heart, and I will fill it with peace" (Diary of St. Faustina, 1074).

Thankfully, when Advent began, we got a glimpse of the transcendent that would serve as the embryonic impetus to draw closer to Christ later in life. How so? The Christmas pageants were always powerful (regardless of poor casting), and we all loved the Jesus who entered our house in the form of a two-inch ceramic figurine. My mother would arrange a homemade manger on our mantelpiece, and eventually this likeness of the Child Jesus would be placed in a tuft of straw surrounded by His mother, father, some wise men, and a couple of angels. Those figurines surrounding the Child Jesus looked smitten. Even the camel.

Since the world clearly needs more water carriers — humble, joyful, generous, self-sacrificing evangelizers smitten with the Merciful Lord and standing ready to serve Him — I propose here that we all take great care this Advent to speak about Jesus to our children and grandchildren with joy, clarity, and confidence. And maybe we should take our cue from the writer Stephen Dunn who writes, "You can't teach unbelief to a child, only wonderful stories."

The Jesus whom I've come to know arrived as a Child because, in their meekness and weakness, children remind us of our better selves — the selves who inherently understand that the good life, the meaningful life, hinges upon our attentiveness to the needs of others.

The narrative our children can understand quite clearly is this: Previously seen wrapped in swaddling clothes in an open-air barn, Jesus grew up to become a super hero in sandals, battling evil and rebelling against the social system dictated at that time by the Pharisees, a system set up to revere a merciful God but that failed to extend such mercy to those in greatest need. He chose to engage with the sinners and outcasts. He told the rich to give to the poor. He told the persecuted to forgive.

"In other words," I have said to my own boy, who is now 10, "Jesus rocks — He rocks more than any super hero drawn from the wondrous minds at Marvel Comics. And He rocks doubly so because, unlike our much beloved Spider-Man, He is real. You can speak to Him. He will answer you." (My grandmother was right!)

This Advent, with my own guileless, Christmas pageant-participating child gathered around a cardboard cut-out manger and dressed for the chilly weather of the high desert, I'm reminded of how this season can still "bewilder the intellect but utterly quiet the heart," as G.K. Chesterton put it.

That Child in the manger would later grow up to be a marked Man who had made a lot of people nervous. And in His final, horrifying hours He was spat upon.

But not by a camel.

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