Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Ghost of Christmas Past

It is done. The twinkling lights that guided us through December have breathed their last. The night grows dark. Cold closes in. Some of us are relieved to slip back into the routines of ordinary life. Some of us are wistful at the festive time’s passage. Some are still coping with what changed forever over the holidays. Wherever your heart may be, look back for just a moment, and hold the season that is past. The Maori say that the past is really our future and that we can only know where we are going when we truly know where we have been.

Most of us pay great attention to the beginning of Christmas. A certain excitement accompanies Advent, the Annunciation, the child in the manger, the shopping, the presents under the tree, family, stress, lights, all those things we encounter at the beginning.

By the time we get to the end of the season, however, many of us are ready for it to be over. We’re full to the gills with Christmas, tired, partied out, a little hung over.

It leads me to wonder if there is something about the end of Christmas that makes it harder than the beginning, something that is not just the effect of celebration.

There’s something about the story itself that has the power to set my teeth on edge. Here’s the way they taught it when I was in seminary.

The Christmas story marks a turning point in the world, a point of great reversal, said our teachers. God the all powerful comes to earth, but he comes as no power we would recognize. God arrives as a poor child, a royal prince born among the most ordinary animals. The Christ event (everything is an “event” today) means that the poor will rise. The rich will be cast down. Read the Magnificat. One of my professors said, “This is a story with winners and losers.”

I have always felt unsettled by this kind of theology, even if I do root for the underdog. It’s too easy to hear it as politics, as the superior moral position of the oppressed. The theologians call it “God’s preferential option for the poor,” but it can still, in some lights, be construed as Marxism in Christian vestments. This is not to say I have a problem with Marxism. I don’t. I’m glad Marx revealed what he revealed. But the idea that Christmas is about winners and losers too easily slips into dualism, the left’s saying in different words what the right has always asserted: God’s kingdom is by admission only.

There may be great differences in the world, but the world is not dualistic. The world is not divided into winners and losers, good and evil, black and white, high and low. The world should not be divided at all. Could we know ourselves to be fully alive without the presence of death? Could we have light without darkness?

If Christmas were really, at the literal level it was taught me, about the rise of the poor, why are the rich still dancing on their yachts? Am I missing something?

This year, with the world reeling with economic recession, I had ample time to ponder rich and poor, to ponder how God appears in the world, to travel the songlines that are the Christmas season. And here’s what I found. I found that the first part of Christmas is centered upon the poor, at least those we would consider poor: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the manger, our children. But once that story is told, the action shifts toward those whom we would call the rich, Herod, his court and sages, the Magi from the East. Much reversal and surprise turns up in both places. I suspect Mary and Joseph were surprised to find themselves in a stable. I know the shepherds were amazed by angels. A world that appears constricted suddenly expands all the way to heaven. The poor are revealed as rich. The rich are revealed as poor. As Isaiah puts it at the beginning of Advent, the world grows level at the coming of God.

But leveling is still not sameness. Equality is not sameness. God happens differently to different people. This is not because God is different, but because we are different. Obviously we are meant to be different or God would not have created us that way. The task, it seems, is to bring all that difference together. Here, as I see it, are some ends of the continuum.

God comes to the poor as gift. Poverty is a condition of emptiness, and God may easily enter the emptiness.

The rich, on the other hand, are full of things, full of themselves. To the rich comes the rather more difficult task of finding the narrow hole in all that fullness and seeing what lies beyond. It’s a scary undertaking. What if God should come and ask for all that I have? Because of course God does ask for all we have. When all I have is myself, however, I cannot imagine that there might be anything more.

The characters who populate the latter half of Christmas are all rich.

The Magi are rich. They have the wherewithal to drop everything and follow a star. They know, for they have done their watching well, that the star is very important. They devote their fortunes to finding the birth heralded by it. They use royal language to describe it, because royal language is their way, a way that leads them to other royalty, to Herod’s court. They come as messengers, rather as the angels came to the shepherds, bearing news of a divine child.

And Herod is just as terrified as the shepherds to hear the news. Herod is not like the Magi. When Herod hears the words “king of the Jews,” Herod is afraid, “and all Jerusalem with him.” His is the literal world of winners and losers and he senses he is in danger of losing this one. He posts his guard.

The Magi keep watch. Herod posts a guard. There is a very great difference between these two ways of being rich.

The wise ones thank Herod for directing them towards Bethlehem, and go on their way. Then they do what the rich must always do: they offer their gifts. That is the whole point of Christian practice if we are rich. It is to acknowledge how gifted we are and to give others what they need. It is not to choose the gifts ourselves, but like the Magi to listen for the voice of God and let God tell us how and to whom to offer our gifts.

The Biblical Christmas story begins with people seeking what they need and ends with an offering of gifts.

Then the angels return. They come in dreams. First, to the wise ones: “Herod means the child harm. Return to your country by another way.” Then to Joseph: “Take your little one to Egypt and keep him safe. The gold received from the wise ones will pay your passage and keep you.”

The divine child vanishes into Egypt. The wise ones go home. The shepherds continue to abide in their fields. Another Christmas comes to an end. Stand in the darkness and remember. For God has spoken to you, too.

1 comment:

Diane said...

Carol, you are so thoughtful. I love to read your posts. How insightful this one is, simple but inspires wondering. Love to you this new year 2009. Diane