Tag Archives: Christmas

Who Knew?

Reading about Jesus is an occupational expectation for an editor of biblical studies. Not that this is anything new for someone who grew up thinking of him constantly. One of the issues often raised about the son of Mary and Joseph is what he did during his childhood. There are apocryphal gospels that address that question since the canonical ones don’t, other than a Lukan visit to the temple in Jerusalem where the professors were stumped by the student. A query that’s pondered from time to time is why nobody thought to write down the early years. A related question is less often asked: who knew in the early days that Jesus would amount to what he did? It’s pretty much accepted that the tales of a miraculous birth were borrowed from the common stock of quotidian cultural heroes of the day. Anybody famous had to have had a spectacular start. If they knew from the beginning, however, that he was going to be great, why didn’t they write his story?

Unless, of course, they didn’t know. Jesus was born, according to the best that we can reconstruct, in a working class family. He had brothers and sisters, according to the gospels, and since Joseph disappears from the story rather early, he was likely raised in by a single mother. Who pays attention to such mill-fodder as this? One of the common people who will, more likely than not, come to nothing? A statistic to make great the egos of Herods and Caesars. Who bothers to write such things down? It’s only after fame that we become interested. What made him so? How did his meteoric rise get started? Before then, who really cared?

Stuck here in the middle of Lent, it’s easy to forget that even Jesus started life as a nobody. Many who start life privileged end up obscure. There’s perhaps a cosmic balancing act taking place here. The fulcrum—and who thinks of the fulcrum while riding on the teeter-totter?—the fulcrum is the common person. Fame may ease the path to halls of power. Cronies will fall over themselves to kiss the hem of any robe headed toward the Oval Office. Those who claim such rights will do so on the back of a guy so occluded we don’t really even know where he was born. Or what he did before he was thirty. And had he lived out his life like the rest of his neighbors we wouldn’t be asking the question even now.

The Morning After

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Quite apart from seeing a live performance of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has been on my mind a bit this Christmas season. I suppose that’s not surprising since it has been suggested that Dickens “invented” the modern Christmas, but it is really, I think, because of how the wider world seems to be spinning backwards. The poor have always been a personal concern of mine. I grew up poor and I know how much suffering it entails. My case was a rather mild poverty—we were never out on the street, and we didn’t actually go hungry. We had nothing in the way of luxuries, though, and I could see the possibilities even as I could see the sky where the boards on the roof were pulling apart. It wouldn’t have taken much for us to have been cast out in a cold Pennsylvania winter. Others have it much worse.

On my daily walks to work, I see the homeless. Some sleep in cardboard boxes, some in tents. Others are out under the stars. One morning I walked by a particularly creepy and sad sight of a person sitting, shrouded in a blanket over his or her head, on a subway vent to catch some of the ambient heat. I know that I don’t have the means to buy each one a meal. Their number has been going up, not down. And I think of Bob Cratchit, threatened and bullied by Ebenezer Scrooge. He will lose his job if he’s not in early today, the day after Christmas. Because of his change of heart, Scrooge buys his clerk a pot of “smoking bishop.” And herein lies the only possible cheer.

My wife got me started on Dickens. She also sent me a story from NPR on smoking bishop. It seems, according to the story by Anne Bramley, that British Protestants delighted in making fun of church offices by naming their tipples after titles. Churchmen (and they were men) were largely exempt from being poor and, according to historians, often supported the Poor Laws that made the fate of the poverty-stricken even worse. In a kind of perverse revenge against privilege, drinks were named after various ecclesiastical offices. There’s little that the poor can do, except to try to find the scant humor in a situation where no one has the reach of a Charles Dickens anymore. Ebenezer, unlike Bob, is a biblical name. It means “stone of help.” In these chilly days dare we hope that help may come, even from a stone?

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

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We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

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.

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.

Christmas Music

While reading about holidays recently, I came across the idea of Christmas as a cultural holiday as well as a religious holiday. Now that it’s here, it feels like a little of both. My wife grew up in a musical family and Christmas music was a large part of her experience of the holiday. Although I grew up in a family where the religious aspect of the holiday was as preeminent as it could be with young boys, I don’t recall music being much a part of it. Perhaps we had enough of Christmas carols in church and on every shopping excursion. I don’t recall having a record player beyond maybe a close-and-play for our few 45’s. Now a large part of our holiday experience is the music. We listen to contemporary secular and classical religious and, to borrow an expression from popular parlance, it’s all good. Music spans the sacred and secular and suggests that we might all get along if only we were willing to try.

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Scanning our shelves we have a wide variety of Christmas music. It begins with Medieval carols and spans to a Very Metal Christmas and the most recent Pentatonix album. Even Amy Grant has a place in there from my college days. Like a kid I awake early on Christmas, from the long habit of getting up around 3:30. The house is quiet and, rare for New Jersey even the street outside is silent. In the hush I can still hear a kind of music. The music of peace, of a dream, of an ardent hope, of Christmas.

Christmas is all about sharing. We know Jesus of Nazareth was unlikely born this time of year, but we take it as a symbol. The peace of a silent night is best enjoyed in mixed company. With the political rancor of exclusion burning in our ears other days of the year, maybe we could think about sharing today. Sharing our land. Sharing our sense of hope. Sharing our music. The world could be such a wonderful place if we would only listen for Christmas.

Away in a Manger?

The holidays are a time for getting together. At a friend’s house over the weekend, we were talking about nativity scenes. I mentioned a story about how a nativity scene had been missing the infant Jesus and he said he’d be right back with a solution. I have to admit that I’ve never seen Sweet Baby Jesus porter before. “Place that in your manger,” he said. I assume this is a seasonal brew, intended to draw the semi-religious toward a kind of holiday cheer. Now, blasphemy in a bottle is nothing new. In fact it’s quite common, I expect. Nevertheless, a bottle that says “One sip and you’ll claim the name” might be offering a salvation that it simply can’t deliver.

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Growing up, Christmas never had any connection with drinking. My father was an alcoholic, and inviting this particular spirit to the holidays seemed misguided. Still, I recognize that in many cultures tipples were a way of coping with the excessive periods of darkness. Even in these days of ubiquitous artificial lights, I find that the darkness just outside bears a considerable weight. We festoon our houses with colorful lights to ward off the night. We prepare special foods to take our minds from the bleakness outside the window. And yes, some turn to Sweet Baby Jesus to offer its own kind of shine.

The holidays mean many things to many people. The commercial aspects appeal less and less as the years go by, but having some time off work to be with family and collect my thoughts grows more important each year. What makes a day holy, I expect, is that you have things that are otherwise difficult to find. Life, for many, is a long series of denials of what they really want. When the holidays come, they indulge. Who am I to begrudge someone else of what makes their ordinary days sacred? Who indeed?