Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Anxiety and Trust at Christmas

Here’s what I don’t understand about Christmas.

Why would a long journey by foot and mule in order to report to the Internal Revenue Service…
Why would a night of childbirth in a barnyard, no midwife, no epidural, no one to shoo away the dogs, the goats, where no carpenter’s sandpaper smoothed the splintery boards of the cradle…

Why would a setting like this, where everyone feels so threatened, vulnerable, and unsafe that the story requires counselors from heaven to fly about urging people not to be afraid (as if that could have helped any)…

Why would all this inspire a festival of perfection, a celebration of abundance, an enshrining of beauty, in which we knock ourselves out to get everything as just-right as we can?

Why are we arriving breathless and spent (emotionally and financially), at the end of a shopping season, rather than stepping across to the start of a season of renewal?

Why have we been worshiping at the mall and poring over our catalogues more than we’ve kept still in our sanctuaries or searched our scriptures?

Why have we ended an old year volunteering for sacrifice in the temples of perfection?

Could it be that we are anxious?

Ancient peoples like the Mayans dreaded the final days of the ending year. As astute as they were about astronomy and chronology, each year’s ending terrified them with worry that there wouldn’t be enough time given to cross over into a new year. It was as if they feared the universe might run out of breath and, just as they needed a little more to enter the future, life might inhale and take them all into oblivion.

And what did they do? They got very, very busy. They sacrificed overtime in their temples, the blood of slaves and captured enemies poured out to the gods to ensure successful passage into a new year.

So is that it? As we near the winter solstice, are we human beings programmed to hyperactive performance in order to get it right and make it across?

If so, wow, do we ever need saving. I do. I recognize enough Mayan mania in me that I think it could be an answer to why our cultural Christmas is what it is.

If you don’t buy that, if you find that theory too primitive, let me offer another possible answer. It is that we don’t know when to stop. If a little bling and material comfort are good, surely more is better? When it comes to Christmas, don’t we all have a sweet tooth, aren’t we all ready to party? Like the sofa-full of cherubs in the L. L. Bean ad, don’t we all have our head-mounted searchlights beaming-in on the fireplace tonight?

If so, we still need to be saved. One beautiful thing Christmas Eve does is to convince us that it’s time to stop. Stop the frenetic makeover and be still before the mystery of deep change that God is about tonight. Stop our orchestrating of life, admit that we’re powerless to lay down the remote, the impulse to control, for more than an hour or so: but in this hour or so, be awestruck that God invites us into a harmony not of our own making—and will we go there?

For there is where Mary and Joseph go, and though the birth belongs to Jesus, the story’s entry point for us is the experience of these two young parents. We who need saving can watch in them how a person is converted from anxiety to trust. Mary first, facing the disintegration of her world by a pregnancy too soon, and from the angel Gabriel an invitation to trust God in her present condition, as is. Joseph next, fearing that his community, his family, his village could not contain the unexplainability of life’s getting out of order—then finding, in a dream, that same counsel from heaven: live with this, find God in this, serve God by this.

There is a gift for each of us tonight in their story. Their story of how useful to God imperfections can be. Their story of how real perfection is God’s work, ours is just being useful, and always for that our first step is to trust. By their trusting, they are the heroes in this nativity story.

What is being born in you? How do you need community, family, friends, fellow-travelers, to support you and celebrate your growing, your birthing? What heroism does this call for, and what humble but breathtaking next step may be yours to take, to stop worshiping in the temples of perfection, and to enter harmony with God?