Reflections on Christmas draw readers into the season of Jesus’ birth

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Father John Cusick, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and former director of the archdiocese’s Young Adult Ministry office, is the author of “Emmanuel: God-With-Us; Reflections on the Mystery of Christmas” (Corby Books, 2021). He wrote the collection of essays and reflections over his 52 years of priesthood. He never had any intention of publishing many of them, he said; he wrote them for himself, an exercise to help him approach the mystery of Christmas anew each year.

When people suggested he make his reflections into a book so everyone could read them, he enlisted the help of an editor to pull them together and arrange them into themed groups.

“Some of the essays are humorous; all are real,” Cusick said. “They’re all from out of my heart and soul.”

He spoke with Chicago Catholic staff writer Michelle Martin Nov. 9. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What messages do you want readers to get from this book, and how do you want them to use it? Is it something to prepare for Christmas during Advent, or something to use during the Christmas season?

A: They can use it any way they want. The church focuses on Advent, the society focuses on Christmas. I think it’s a good preparation for Christmas.

Q: Is the different emphasis between the church and society an illustration of the church’s call to be countercultural that you write about?

A: Advent gets buried by the popular culture, you know that as well as I do. So yes, it’s countercultural. But the focus of the celebration of Christmas is also countercultural. It’s not about the cultural bells and whistles; it’s the birth of the one we call the Son of God among us.

Q: One thing I learned from reading the book was that Caesar Augustus was called the “savior of the world.” That changes the political implications of proclaiming Jesus as the savior of the world, doesn’t it?

A: There were political reasons, but there were also spiritual reasons and religious reasons. The Roman emperor was a big deal, religiously. That’s another form of counterculturalism.

But that’s another form of the impact of what Gospel really means: You have to choose. Jesus never says this is the only way it can be. The Gospels lay out possibilities, and you have to decide, what do you choose?

In the Gospel of Luke, there are two understandings of peace: peace through violence, and the peace of good human relations. Which one do you choose? Why was there a census? To find out how many people there were, and now we know who to collect money from to keep the army going. That’s peace the Roman way, peace the cultural way. We do the same things now.

Q: Do you have a favorite essay in this book?

A: “Tie Box” (an essay about presenting his parents with tickets for a vacation in the Bahamas, wrapped up in a tie box, the Christmas after his ordination). That meant a great deal to me. There are others as well; the one about buying the Christmas tree with parents — I always got a big kick out of that one.

Q: How much did your upbringing and your parents contribute to how you came to understand Christmas and the gift of Emmanuel?

A: They’re the ones who birthed me into a Catholic world, and that’s how I grew up, and that’s always been very important to me. I think it developed; the older I got, the more I appreciated and had kind of a growing awareness of the spirituality of Christmas. You don’t really get that when you’re a little kid.

I think my reason for writing this, for putting the book together, for too many people and for too long, Christmas has been seen as a child’s story. If there’s going to be a Christmas pageant in the parish, you won’t be able to get in there will be so many people.

As I developed my own spirituality, I realized that this is a powerful adult story that really goes over the heads of children. We’ve got two saviors here, and the swaddling clothes are not signs of poverty — that was how Solomon was wrapped when he was born. They were signs of royalty and love. I never knew that.

Then there was no room in the inn. Did you ever think about who stays in an inn? Travelers. Why was there no room? Was it because the innkeeper was a jerk? No. Did you ever think that it was because Jesus wasn’t going anywhere? He was born where he was always meant to be: in, with and among God’s people. I could never comprehend that as a child.

Q: If it goes over the heads of children, do we do ourselves and children a disservice by doing the Christmas pageant and having all the kids dress up?

A: Oh, no, not at all. I think as part of our developing spirituality, it’s very important to have Christmas pageants for the children. I really, really do. I have a goddaughter, and the first Christmas pageant she was in, she was an angel, but she said, “I have my eye on being Mary.” I always treasured that line.


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