What is it about Christmas? It commands an entire retail season without which many small businesses and corporations alike might not make it through the rest of the year. It has become an incubator of sorts to kick start an entire world into consumer-mode, Black Friday Frenzies, and multiple visits a day from UPS, Fedex and your local US Post Office.
Christmas sets millions if not billions of people out to risk life and limb stringing endless miles of lights – white lights, red and green lights, icicle lights, blue lights, large bulb lights, small bulb lights, LED lights, light up figures of Santa and Dickensian Choir Boys, blow-up interior lit two-story tall Nutcrackers, whole villages, towns illuminated - leaving one wondering just what it all looks like from the International Space Station as we increase our consumption of fossil fuels by some unimaginable percentage of our usual gluttonous kilowatt hours.
Light in the darkness during what is for the Northern Hemisphere the shortest days of the year, the Sun playing its annual game of hide-n-seek, bracing itself for a return visit as we prepare to spin ourselves madly, steadily around our own personal nuclear furnace one more time.
A sudden outburst of generosity as Red-Kettles spring up everywhere with Santas of all shapes and sizes, uniformed Salvation Army volunteers and charities of all kinds offer every possible opportunity for the once a year outpouring of cold, hard cash to help those in need – those poor, those homeless, those outcast and imprisoned ones that the child in the manger would remind us, just days before his own state sponsored execution, will always be with us.
One must at one time or another stop and wonder: what would he make of all of this? This orgy of celebration, consumption and charity that in a few short days and nights will all be boxed up and placed upon the shelf, in the garage, or up in the attic until that sacred moment we finish the last bite of Turkey on Thanksgiving night next year. Would he be at all impressed? Honored? Pleased that we at least, if nothing else, recall that morning that a young woman, a girl really, an unmarried pregnant teenager “betrothed” (do we even recall what that means) to an older gentleman gave birth to a baby boy whose arrival caused such a stir in a backwater village of the once strong and mighty Roman Empire that a civil servant on behalf of Caesar would slaughter millions of innocent children in an attempt to prevent this child who now is seemingly lost in the midst of our annual Dionysian carryings on from ever growing up to become a savior of the world.
“A Thrill of Hope,” a DVD that offers an in-depth glimpse into the story via the artwork of one John August Swanson who strives to connect our story to his story to God’s story in paintings and prints that seeks to depict the sacredness of the ordinary – a young Mary feeding chickens as part of a community of people baking bread, lighting candles, doing the things we do every day without thinking just how miraculous it all is. How the miracle of photosynthesis in the cells of a single leaf can simultaneously feed a tree and make it grow while creating the very oxygen we need to breath, to sustain life, while in other plants providing food for creatures whose fat becomes tallow that when lit becomes light in the very darkness which although it arrives every evening on a daily basis still causes some often imperceptible fear to creep into our supposedly sophisticated but really quite primitive mind.
As our disgust with the machinery of politics deepens like the night itself at this time of Winter Solstice, we all too easily forget that the story as told by Luke and Matthew is as much a political story as it is religious. Things like religion, politics and money were not so easily compartmentalized back then as we try to pretend they are today. How odd that an historic moment like the enlightenment ends up clouding and darkening our view of just how holistic, interconnected and interdependent all things are and by necessity must be if we are to survive. The child Jesus, who as a boy would delight as well as confound the local scholars in Jerusalem – then an armed camp under severe military occupation. A young Jesus who would echo the likes of the Buddha, Lao T’zu, Socrates, Confucius, the Hebrew prophets and others who also drew our attention to our necessary interdependence as pleas to somehow create a world without warfare, a world without wanton killing, a world in which all people everywhere attend to one another’s needs and develop an awareness that we are also inter-related to the Earth, the environment, in a precarious balancing act that makes life possible and also makes it possible to shine light in the darkness.
I have been told that James Carroll, scholar and columnist for the Boston Glove, recently called our attention to the militaristic atmosphere into which God inserted God’s self into our lives, that the birth of Jesus took place in the midst of a paranoid and power hungry military empire, a detail that cannot be clouded over with endless strings of lights and an economic orgy of consumption. Jesus, the Thrill of Hope, came as an alternative view of how life can be lived in a world of war and darkness. Consider: not only Christianity, but all the world’s living religions arose in such an atmosphere of military dominance, economic chaos and overall darkness.
So, what is it about Christmas? I believe that like the Hindu deity Agni who is relied upon to light sacred fires in ancient Vedic rituals, Christmas reignites our sense of what it means to truly be human. Whether we can get our heads around the child whose birth we recall is divine, human, or both, the fact is that we are not entirely through with him – nor he with us. Jesus continues to insert himself into our world, a world still beset with serious and dangerous military actions, state sponsored executions and torture (of a kind he himself endured and endures), and a world awash with political refugees, homelessness and those in need of all kinds of charity and compassion. Yes, as he observed so long ago, the poor are still with us. And yet, inspired by his example of what it means to be human, what it means to be created imago Dei, in the image of God, so too do we have the means to relieve suffering once and for all.
Light a candle and consider the miracles that make that possible. Then become a light in the darkness. Each of us can and do make a difference every day. Celebrate the sacred in the ordinary. Feed chickens with Mary. Confound the scholars like the Christ child. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s. And guess what? It does not matter whether or not you believe in God. You can still live a life created in God’s image shining a little more light into the dark places. Our collective interdependent beams of radiant light together can and do make a difference. And that is what Christmas is about. God bless us every one.