Christmas Time

As children we can’t wait for Christmas because we’ll be getting things.  Now that I’m older I try to avoid the frenzy building up to the holiday, although I look forward to the vacation days that I’ll cash in to take time to be with family rather than business.  It’s not that I don’t like holidays—it’s just I’m no fan of hype.  Still, now that December is nearing, and Thanksgiving has reminded us that work isn’t everything, I can feel the anticipation.  Yesterday I attended the Christkindlmarkt  in Bethlehem.  Amid the backdrop of the truly colossal, rusting stacks of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, this is a seasonal event with nothing but good spirit.  People of all descriptions were crowded into the massive event, but rudeness and complaining were strangely absent.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

When I worked at Nashotah House, the atmosphere for Advent was austere.  We weren’t really encouraged to look forward to Christmas, bringing a tree home before the 24th was frowned upon.  It was a time to reflect on our sins, not to anticipate our rewards.  Still, I had a kind of epiphany among the secular crowds seeking to get into the spirit of things yesterday.  Bethlehem is a city that has known hard times.  Its industrial base eroded away, residents were left unemployed and wondering about a very (and increasingly) uncertain future.  Recasting itself as the Christmas City is a way of throwing new light on a holiday famous for its commercialism.

Christmas can be about resurrection.  It’s a season to think of birth.  It matters not if the mother is a virgin or if the child is for an exclusive sect.  People throng here for hope.  Beauty in the midst of ruin.  Some businesses clearly spend all year building up to Christmas, selling ornaments so delicate that I feared even to look too hard at them lest they shatter.  Handcrafted goods that represent the livelihood of others who compel strangers that art is worth more than money itself.  Wandering through the four tents of booths, the feeling of resurrection was palpable.  We were all here seeking something.  Loosening the grip on the wallet just a bit.  Wanting to make others happy for a while.  Birth is the symbol of hope.  Advent, it seems, need not be a dreary season of wallowing in unworthiness, awaiting a mythology taken too literally.  The proof of the goodness before us is just down the road in Bethlehem.

Hoping for Light

Although the stores have been playing Christmas music for some weeks now, it is technically Advent. I think we could all use a little Advent as days grow shorter and dark nights increase their influence over our lives. As a nation we’ve been brutalized by a minority candidate and this has become a bleak December that Poe would certainly have understood. The spinning mind occasionally falls upon George W. Bush who somehow has begun to look normal. The president who told us when America was under attack we should shop. After all, that’s what people do in December, right? We buy things to make ourselves feel better. It sure is dark outside most of the time. Advent is all about candles and light and hope.

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One of the more endearing aspects of human beings is our ability to see the positive amid negativity. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. Stars are tiny points of light in an endless cold and dark universe. Most of what’s out there has no light beyond those willing to burn bright enough for others to see. We, however, see the light of daytime as normative, slumbering away the hours of darkness. We thrive in light and the light has to be augmented by candles as we struggle against the natural darkness that would, if it could, encompass the universe. Darkness, despite its emptiness, is endlessly hungry. Advent reminds us that we must be light if we want anyone to see in the growing nighttime.

We miss this important dynamic if we leap straight from Halloween to Christmas, pausing briefly for Thanksgiving. The church has made its fair share of mistakes, but Advent wasn’t one of them. Experts tell us Jesus wan’t born in December. Christmas isn’t really a physical birthday. It’s an ancient rite concerned with the return of light to darkened skies. A fervent appeal for our colorful lights and candles to encourage the light that we know, we believe, is out there to return to us. Scientists tell us that it’s just that the earth lolls at 23 degrees on its axis and all of this is just a balancing act. That may be so. I’ve never been off the earth to check. Down here on the ground, however, the days come only reluctantly and the nights linger longer and longer. And we can choose to see darkness as our natural state, or we can ignite a candle to encourage the light to return.

Protest Reading

In these days of bold ignorance, reading in public is an act of resistance. A world that follows the uninformed to perdition requires those who stand as witnesses. Those who read. As a cabinet of the wealthiest people in the country is being assembled we need to remind each other that wisdom and wealth aren’t the same thing. Not even close. We read to improve our minds and we find, in such reading, that wealth increases happiness only to a point. Excess wealth leads to misery, but like the addicted, those who have it just can’t stop. Stop, I say, and pick up a book. To help with this my wife sent along the Banned Book Advent calendar. That’s not to say we can read a book a day, but I believe the world would be a better place if we could. Especially if those books were banned.

You see, banned books cause us to think. That’s the payoff. I’ve read many, many banned books. Some of them I didn’t like very much, but that’s not the point. Liking what you read may lubricate the process, but it is the reading itself that stretches the mind. Makes use of mental muscles we didn’t know that we had. Those who ban books want prejudiced minds to prevail. Think about it: prejudice comes from the combination of the prefix for “already” and the root for “judging.” The prejudiced have already decided. Reading challenges. It has from the earliest days of myths on clay down to the era of ordered electrons on a flat screen. Reading makes you question. The thought police prefer mindless acquiescence. Want to show your true colors? Pull out a book and read.

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The season of Advent is one of anticipation. We all know what’s behind door 25, but the journey is the point. That journey is better when it’s literate. When I travel my carryon always has books. More than I can read on the trip, just in case. Books are banned because we fear knowledge. Once exposed to an idea we must deal with it. Far simpler to lock it away in some sealed room and continue to do things like it’s still the 1450s. Before Twitter started revolutions, books did. When we put down our books we are opening an invitation to ignorance. Last month showed what happens when that invitation is given. I won’t make it through a book a day this season, but I flip out my reading material whatever chance I get. And I believe a better future will result.

Holiday Season

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I stop to think about what holidays really do. “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs have popped up like winter dandelions as Trump signs consider to litter the landscape. Thanksgiving, however, gave me the opportunity to forget about all of this for a while. The culture of signs. Signs telling us we must bow down and worship. The holidays signal a season when it is okay to hibernate and forget that more powerful forces out there may wish you harm. Part of the trouble is that those who are coming sometimes can’t see beyond their own interests. Perhaps what I do for a living conflicts with the job I’m paid to do. Conscience dictates that one or the other must go. But conscience is such an old fashioned idea.

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The holidays start with Thanksgiving, but it is now the Monday after. Those in liturgical traditions of Christianity will note that we are in Advent, a season of anticipation. I do wonder what we’re anticipating. Perhaps it’s because Thanksgiving came and went in a blur of travel weariness this year. The few days when commuting wasn’t an issue were the opportunity to stay still for a while and not look at news feeds and reflect on all we’re thankful for. I started hearing Christmas carols in stores shortly after Halloween. We’re entering the season of money in a country in love with lucre. Take a close look and see what lies in that manger.

Most years the stretch of dark months of November through January are accompanied by a sense of peace. Human beings loving each other and getting along. I guess I’ve been away from the news for a few days. I know there was a Black Friday last week. I also know that money has a strange way of funneling upward, a kind of osmosis of Mammon. On my quiet strolls I wonder what we, as a country, truly value. On the highway stuck in traffic with thousands of others returning home, I try to think that in these metal shells are living, breathing, loving human beings. Many of them only trying to get ahead. We’re all in a rush since there’s so much to do before we allow ourselves another holiday. Wouldn’t life be better with more days for reflection? I’d rather not politicize the holiday. Keeping Christ in Christmas seems to be asking for one not to forget the offering plate. I’m wondering about those sleeping in the street not far from Trump Tower. I’m wondering what ever became of conscience.

Magnificat

IMG_1857One of the advantages of a huge endowment is the luxury to experience culture. Although we don’t live in Princeton, we don’t live far from it, and most years we venture down to hear the free Advent Concert given by the Princeton Chapel Choir. For those of you who’ve never been to the Princeton campus, or perchance have not visited the chapel there, the setting is part of the experience. On the order of a small Medieval cathedral, the campus chapel at Princeton is by far the largest I’ve encountered, and the acoustics from the soaring stone are impressive, even to an untrained ear such as mine. Since my wife is the musical one in this marriage, she reads the program with an avidity I lack, but I do recognize striking music when I hear it. This year’s concert included a piece I recollected from a few years ago, Christine Donkin’s “Magnificat.”

I’m at the age where it is no longer surprising to find very talented people much younger than myself. Christine Donkin is in this class. A Canadian composer, she has had her music performed in major venues such as Carnegie Hall. Her “Magnificat” is the only piece with which I am familiar, but it is a powerful work that can be compared to a mystical experience in the listening. Written for women’s voices, the piece evokes a spirituality that seems to come easily to those who are submissive. The Magnificat is, by tradition, Mary’s psalm of submission to the divine will, based on 1 Samuel’s account of Hannah conceiving the prophet Samuel. In a world dominated by male humans as well as a male deity, the song of Mary is one of the subtle poems celebrating the upsetting of the entrenched power structures that have held women down. If you listen closely enough, its subversive elements become clear.

Donkin’s “Magnificat,” in a darkening cathedral on a December evening, is a moving experience. It is a piece that leaves me feeling as if I’ve temporarily been somewhere else. And that elsewhere is far from the turmoil and troubles of daily life. And there are no men involved.

Over the years we’ve heard many impressive performances in that stone edifice. None, however, it seems to me, so powerful as that of a young woman confronted with a reality beyond that of everyday life. A reality that men cannot touch, but which, when the circumstances are right, they might hear if they’re willing to listen, and in doing so might find their own burdens lightened for a few minutes on a winter’s evening.

Holiday Cheer

Christmas carols are, it seems, intended to fill holiday shoppers with good cheer. Good cheer opens wallets and purses and everybody is happy until January’s bills make their epiphany. Until then, sing songs of gladness. Princeton University, one of the few financially stable institutions of higher education, each year gives a gift to the community. Some Sunday in Advent a free university Chapel Choir concert is given in a campus chapel the size of a modest medieval European cathedral. The music varies from year-to-year, but seldom is the church not full with locals taking time out from holiday shopping or grading papers. One of the carols yesterday, was the 1914 French piece, “Christmas Carol for Homeless Children.”

Princeton, like most schools, does have a heart buried beneath its deep, cold, jobless front. Chapel choirs like to shake up the status quo by throwing in an occasional piece that requires somber thoughts and social consciousness amid the joy. The French carol dates from that fearsome first year of World War One, a time when France was especially under the gun. The wish for the world at the time was peace – material gain had not yet become the measure of God’s grace. The hymn is sober and wrenching:

We have no more house nor home!
Enemies took all we had;
all gone, all gone,
even our own little bed!
The school they burnt;
they burnt our teacher, too.
They burnt the church and also the Lord Jesus Christ,
the poor old beggar too who could not get away!

Singing it in French may take away the vinegar of the words, but wartime is not the only circumstance that finds people without sufficient means. Even unchecked capitalism will lead to the same results. Only, instead of the Lord Jesus Christ being burnt, he is sold in the markets to make a tidy profit.

Baby Jesus says, "Bring on the gold!"