Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Full Wonder of the Incarnation

Scripture for Christmas includes Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20

Every year, it boils down to this puzzling state of affairs.

We knock ourselves out consuming, organizing, preparing, eating, drinking, decorating, partying on the premise that we’re observing the birthday of an itinerant preacher who never had two nickels in his pocket, or a traditional settled home life, or what you might call a natural instinct to avoid altercations with religious authorities claiming to know the mind of God.

Go figure. What we spend (and that is the correct verb), what we spend December doing (and November, for that matter) is more in keeping with the ancient sun worship that reached a fevered pitch at the winter solstice. Afraid of the dark, staving off the possibility that without the proper ceremonies and sacrifices, this time the sun might not return to lengthen the days and ensure the growing season, our hunter-gatherer forbears caught, cooked, consumed, offered gifts to the heavens—the prehistoric version of shopping ‘til they dropped. All to keep anxiety at bay.

How far have we evolved from that? Isn’t there some of that in our cultural Christmas?

What’s tricky about this puzzle of finding the right fit to celebrate Christmas is the fact that Christian faith honors and employs all that is tactile and sensory, physical and tangible. “Sacramental” is the name we give to that trait, using outward and visible signs to express and convey inward and spiritual grace, believing that love passes like a current through such media as bread and wine, water, music, language, art, food—when offered to God’s purpose and praise, and offered with open hand and heart to whoever welcomes such a gift.

That approach teaches us to recognize value not so much in the object, as in what is done with the object: the giving, the receiving, the sharing, the appreciating, the rejoicing, the gratitude, the building of relationship and the serving of worthy purpose, including sheer enjoyment.

So it isn’t just primitive hunting-gathering that’s at work in our cultural Christmas. Our Lord Jesus, born today, is first adored in a barnyard; and ever after, he keeps revealing how God’s sanctuary is to be found everywhere, on a grassy hillside where several thousand hungry people are fed, around countless tables where he eats with all sorts and conditions of people, and in village squares where he heals and teaches and honors and confronts all who come to him. He sets loose the power of sacrament to reach us spiritually through physical means.

And so we fill our liturgical Christmas celebration with crèche figures and candles, music and costumes, wreaths and banks of flowers, and of course bread and wine. But our Christmas ceremonies: Are they more about rocking us to sleep, or are they more about awakening and equipping us to face the changes that we know are happening (and those we don’t yet know and will happen nonetheless)? Are our Christmas services using the same-old-same-old to keep anxiety at bay?

Indulging religious nostalgia can make as puzzling a fit with Christmas as consumerism. This Jesus whose coming we celebrate is remembered for his disapproval of showy sanctuaries, and for his critique of automatic ceremonial and passionless theology that fails to reveal the sheer relentless pervasive love of God for the whole shimmering web of life. Jesus is as much about rocking the boat as he is rocking the cradle, remembered for his tendency to pound the table and demand raising the bar of personal integrity and community ethics.

So if our Christmas liturgies fail to win the hearts and spark the imagination and meet the yearnings of good people who will give this sort of thing a chance only once or twice a year, perhaps we’re not doing justice to the full wonder of the Incarnation.

But you know what? Just as Christianity’s high regard for sacrament and physicality reminds us that God has made us to enjoy creation (our capacity for joy being one mark of our being made in the divine image), meaning that we’re not on the wrong path in our giving and receiving gifts, our feasting, our decking the halls-- so keeping anxiety at bay may be valued as one of the timeless vocations of religion. If joy is one clear sign of the divine likeness within us, so is peace and serenity.

Consider the mantra in Luke’s story of Jesus’s birth. How many times do we hear the message, “Do not be afraid,”? Nine months ago, these words were said by the mysterious messenger Gabriel to a young girl in the working class cottage where she and her fiancé lived. Tonight in Bethlehem, the same words are said to calm the shepherds who don’t know what to make of the spectacle before them. The words will be said later to Joseph, anxious as he is about being a new father, anxious about this devilish journey they’ve had to make to enroll for the tax that will further drain Galilee of its resources; he is overwhelmed by the attention his son is getting from foreign dignitaries and from paranoid King Herod, and further anxious about the dangers of escaping to Egypt to keep this child out of Herod’s reach.

We’d be missing the most obvious puzzle piece of Christmas if we failed to see the holy nativity set as it is among discouraging, frightening, desperate, painful world problems. We look around our world this Christmas and wherever we look, the winds of madness are blowing, from the Islamic State’s execution of westerners to the Taliban’s massacre of Pakistani school children and teachers, to gun violence and racial discrimination in our own country, to government inaction to offset climate change. It is no small part of the mission of Jesus and his Church to keep anxiety at bay so that we may see and make our very best choices, and avoid our worst ones.

Mary treasures all the pieces of the Christmas puzzle, pondering them in her heart. So must we, if we are to take our part in that peace on earth for which the angels pray. We’d best renew our treasuring by valuing peace within ourselves, peace that the world cannot give, peace that is—like joy-- God’s gift to be welcomed.