In a sermon broadcast on the BBC on Dec. 25, 1950, Msgr. Ronald Knox observed that “we make a holiday of Christmas only if we have the strength of mind to creep up the nursery stairs again, and pretend that we never came down them.” In my case, the stairs in question led, not to a nursery, but to the children’s bedroom I shared with my brother at 1 Regester Avenue in the Baltimore suburb of Rodgers Forge. And down the stairs we slid, Christmas morning, to discover what had arrived (or, as we later learned, what had been assembled, often with the aid of my grandfather Weigel) the night before. The day that followed was one unmitigated happiness; and from the distance of more than half a century, I still remember the sweet sadness of Christmas night, brought on by the thought that it was now a full year until Christmas came ‘round again.
Msgr. Knox’s call to a recovered Christmas innocence may well ring more truly today than it did when he preached on the BBC the Christmas before I was born. Western culture, back then, had its cynics; but it was not awash in cynicism and irony, as it is today. And those two cultural markers—cynicism and irony—are grave impediments to receiving the Gospel and embracing friendship with the Lord Jesus as the defining commitment of our lives. Postmodernity proposes cynicism and irony as adult attitudes, signs of maturation beyond nursery innocence. The entire Christmas story, however, tells us that that’s not true.