Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Birth of Christmas

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given …” Isaiah 9:6

Many years ago there lived a young girl; she was probably sixteen to eighteen and betrothed to a village handyman. Some traditions suggest he might have been in his thirties or forties, and possibly a widower. However, it’s more likely he was younger – perhaps eighteen to twenty-one years of age. We don’t know, of course, as the evangelists did not provide those details. Maybe age isn’t important for what followed, but I think it helps set the tone for our understanding Christmas a little better.

In modern-day America, Christmas conjures up images of reindeer, chubby elves, nativity sets, candy canes, and a saccharine yearning for a world that never really was – snow falling at the perfect moment, or families gathered Norman-Rockwell-like around a tree.

Consequently, Christmas can often be a let-down. For many people it is a blue season; it’s a depressing time of year that fits in with the long, cold, dark nights much better than the twinkling delights hung in windows and along eaves troughs, or images of steam wafting gently into the snow-chilled air from a cup of scalding hot chocolate,.

The first Christmas was definitely not a dazzling one for that first couple lo those many years ago. For one thing, while Mary and Joseph were betrothed and supposed to be looking forward to life shared together in matrimonial harmony, she came down with a sudden case of the “preggers.” This did not bode well on many levels, not the least of which was living in a town whose major trade was likely in the field of gossip.

Secondly, since Joseph was not the father, humanly speaking, Mary was seriously at risk of being accused of adultery and suffering lethal consequences. Even if she were allowed to slip away quietly, everyone would know she was “tainted goods” and she’d live out her days with a scarlet letter hung invisibly about her neck. Happy days? I think not.

Still, we are told that Joseph was a “righteous” man. That means he was trusted to act and judge wisely; his primary desire was to always do what was pleasing to God.

He was told in a dream, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary for your wife.” Therefore he did not condemn her, but chose instead to embrace the dream, and through the dream, he embraced Mary, and in embracing Mary, he received as his own the One whom she carried.

Mary herself was no shrinking violet. Although the arts have often portrayed her as a quiet, mouse-like figure “pondering” the words of the angel and puzzling out what they meant, she was not one to let life run her over; she was a typical teenager.

“Hail, Mary, full of grace …”

“What sort of greeting is that?” asked Mary in return. She wasn’t batting her baby blues, biting her lip, and acting demure (and please note, her “baby blues” were no doubt the chocolaty brown of her Semitic heritage). Having God drop into one’s life, whether directly or by angelic stunt-double, never bodes well for the recipient; it means one’s life and plans are being irretrievably changed.

As the old saying goes, God loves us the way we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way.

Mary doesn’t just blithely accept the words of the angel. She challenges the notion she will have a child when she hasn’t done anything to make that happen (and hadn’t planned to until after the nuptials!). But the angel assures her it won’t be her doing, but God’s, and while she has every reason in the world to say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” she doesn’t. Instead, she bows her head, and gives herself to God – who gives himself to her.

Christmas isn’t about the tree, the tinsel, the lights, or the presents we exchange. As with Mary, it’s about God becoming vulnerable, placing his life in our hands, entrusting his own well-being to our questionable, human mercies, and saying, “I’ve got your back; will you have mine?”

And if, like Mary, we’ve got any gumption at all, we’ll accept the challenge, receive the child, and seek to bless the world – making a very Merry Christmas that much more possible in this, our valley – for unto us, the Son IS given.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

War on Christmas - Reporting From the Trenches

There will be wars and rumors of wars; do not be disturbed – Matthew 24:6
I see the War on Christmas has returned.
I have good news. It appears to be restricted to the world of Social Media. No one else in the world seems to be worried about it. I presume that’s because it is neither a real war, nor is it even a real thing. It’s a made-up war, mostly made up by people with a surplus of time on their hands.
That’s not to say there ISN’T a war on Christmas. Just because a war doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
A few weeks back a well-known coffee company brought out its holiday cup; they had the audacity to decorate it with people getting along peaceably with one another.
“What on earth has that got to do with Christmas?” cried a number of indignant souls. “Don’t they realize Christmas is about a mass of humanity smashing their way into stores the day after Thanksgiving and crushing all competitors underfoot?”
Yes, I guess one could say there is a war on Christmas; it’s being waged in the trenches of Social Media. Ironically, “social” media has become quite unsocial, if not anti-social: “Happy Holidays? Happy Freaking Holidays? It’s Christmas!!! ‘Like’ this post if you agree to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, or may your bed be filled with the fleas of a thousand Mooses if you fail to paste and post and pass along this Jesus-loving sentiment!”
I would like to offer my services as an Ambassador of Good Will and reflect on this pseudo-war of which I write.
First, Christmas is a Christian holiday. It is recognized for the most part by one billion people. That sounds like a lot of human beings, but there are another six billion or so for whom it does not apply. So while it might be nice to offer a passer-by a cheery “Merry Christmas,” it would not be inappropriate to wish them an equally cheery “Happy Holidays.”
Why? Because there are a bunch of holidays recognized and practiced by people of many faiths around the globe this time of year, and such a pleasant greeting includes Christmas, without denigrating the faiths of our neighbors.
Secondly, “holiday” is an English word combining (and contracting) “holy day.” A holy day is a day set aside. Set aside for what, you ask? It is a day set apart so people can focus on God. So to wish someone a Happy Holiday is a way of inviting them to experience a time of connecting with God – and enjoying the experience. Is that a bad thing?
What happens if we decide not to get worked up into a lather in the Happy-Holiday-Merry-Christmas flap? Will God be upset? I’m talking about the One who sent down a chorus of angels who sang “Peace on Earth, good will to all …”
I know there are some who have been rebuffed for offering a hearty Merry Christmas to someone who snapped or snarled, finding the greeting offensive or objectionable, but that hardly counts as a “war” and, frankly, says more about them than the well-wisher. It also doesn’t mean you can’t say “Merry Christmas,” or call that tall green thing in your living room a Christmas Tree. That’s our prerogative; that’s our option; that’s what the First Amendment allows us to say and do.
Personally, I like using all the tools at my disposal this time of year for offering gentle greetings. If I am talking to known members of a church, I wish them a Merry Christmas; if to strangers and passers-by, Happy Holidays. To change it up, I sometimes tender a Feliz Navidad (even if they aren’t Hispanic), or Joyeux Noel (even if they aren’t French), or God Jul (even if they aren’t Swedish).
The point is, it is a season for grace, and the more graceful we can be with one another, the more likely we will obtain the gift of peace that passes all understanding. I suspect that was the purpose behind that first Christmas some twenty centuries ago.
So let’s restore the social to our social media and greet one another kindly over these next few weeks. There are some folks who need loving in this, our valley. Mele Kalikimaka.