A few weeks ago, my school hosted a Christmas event with a live nativity. As I wanted to support the school, I stopped by to look around. I listened to the choir sing the carols and sipped my hot cocoa. I went to see the live nativity and saw my students dressed as the ones who were there on that first Christmas night. I knew that they would be bringing animals to help give the stable a genuine feel. There were donkeys and goats. But when I looked to my right, I was not prepared for what I saw:
I know that I have seen a real camel at some point in my life, probably at the zoo. But here he was, just standing there in front of me with no barrier. I stood a moment as families brought their children to the beast so they could pet him and have their pictures taken. After I found a space where it didn't look I was taking time away from the kids, I stepped up. The first thing that struck me was the enormity of the creature. There was no way this could ever pass through the eye of a needle! I then asked if I could touch the camel.
I put my hand on the creature's jawline. I had expected it to feel rough and sinewy. Instead, his face was delicate and soft and foamy feathers.
When I touched him, the camel turned his head towards me, inching it closer to my own. I tried to quickly remember if camels had a habit of biting people or not. Because if it did, I was in real trouble. I was powerless to defend myself at this range. But I gently pressed my hand on his face and he remained. I pet its plush head and looked into its eyes.
Even now, sitting here, I can remember the sensation. I began to share pictures of the experience with my friends and family. I called up one friend and he said to me, "This isn't like you."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I never here you get this excited over nature and God's creatures," he replied.
I thought about it, and this is true. While I appreciate the beauty of God's world, I am very certainly and "indoorsy" type of person who revels in the creature comforts of modern home rather than the rustic life of roughing it. My time spent out doors recreationally is very small.
But there was something special about touching that camel.
Until that moment, the creature had always been something alien to me. It's not like I doubted their existence, but I never thought I would ever get to touch one. But now that I have, camels are more real to me than I ever imagined. They are no longer creatures seen in movies or read about in books. The tactile reality that I experienced changed all of that. And it's unexpected nature is really what threw me. Touching a real camel served to shatter all of my illusions of what I thought a camel was. Now whenever I think of a camel, the memory of its reality will once again fill up my senses.
That's what happens when you touch the real thing.
Of all the senses, I don't think there is anything that makes something more real than touch. We hear words, but people can lie or we can misunderstand. We see things, but our eyes sometimes play tricks on us. But it is the touch, that concrete sense, that gives us confirmation that something is truly real.
I think that's why Thomas said he would not believe until he probed Christ's nail marks with his fingers and put his hand into His side. This imagery is gross and disturbing, but it also goes to show the limit of Thomas's doubt. Maybe Thomas believed his fellow Apostles saw something. But he held himself to a "higher" standard. Seeing would not be believing. Only touch could remove all doubt.
Once you touch someone, so much of the barrier is removed. I think of the movie Dead Man Walking, where the man is being escorted to his execution. He had spent the movie talking to Sister Helen through a phone, through glass, and through bars. But in his final moments, he asked, "Can Sister Helen touch me?" In the movie Ghost, Sam says to Molly, "I would give anything if I could touch you again." He could see and hear her, but the touch made them present to each other in a new way. With the touch, we become truly real to each other.
Christmas is the day that we could touch God.
God is great, He is beyond sensible reality. Yet in His largeness, He had to power to make Himself small without losing any of His immensity. For 9 months He remained hidden in the womb of Mary. And then on that Christmas, He revealed Himself to the world.
And we could finally touch Him.
His tiny fingers and toes wiggled in the cold nigh air as Mary and Joseph snuggled him closely. Did any of the shepherds get to hold him? Did the Magi touch his little feet in homage?
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus would go out of his way to touch people. In Mark's Gospel, a leper asks to be healed. Christ could have simply said the words of healing. Instead, He laid his Holy Hands upon him. Why? Because He came to touch us.
Christmas is the day that God gave us access to Him in a way that we never could have imagined.
My conversion experience when I was 17-years-old centered around finally seeing Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The next day, we had mass. The minister held up the Host and said, "Body of Christ," to which I replied "Amen." And then he placed the Host in my hand.
And in that moment I realized that I was touching God.
Until that moment, God had always been something alien to me. It's not like I doubted His existence, but I never thought I would ever get to touch Him. But now that I have, God is more real to me than I ever imagined. He is no longer Someone seen in movies or read about in books. The tactile reality that I experienced changed all of that. And it's unexpected nature is really what threw me. Touching the Real God served to shatter all of my illusions of Who I thought God was. Now whenever I think of God, the memory of its reality will once again fill up my senses.
Like Thomas, I have reached the limits of my doubt. And all of this because I touched His Body.
And that is the greatest Christmas present I can imagine.
Merry Christmas and God Bless!