The Humility of Christmas

I often feel a bit Scrooge-like at this time of year.

I’m not stingy with gift-giving, and I am certainly willing to wish people blessing and good cheer (and am more than willing to adapt my greeting to accommodate the existence of religious traditions and beliefs, or the lack thereof, that are not my own). But I do become grumpy about what seems like the over-commercialization of a sacred time.

It feels to me that the spirituality of Christmas gets lost in all the office parties, shopping, and even some of the good cheer (maybe the kind of excessive cheer that gets people drunk).

It’s not that spirituality need be glum or only serious without any fun, but there is in living spiritually an inherent depth that is lost in the marketplace. And Christmas has become very much a marketplace event. It is the most important sales event of the year for most retailers.

I know another blog or article bemoaning what has become of Christmas is probably not needed–I don’t think all the ones prior to this have done much good– and it is not my purpose anyway. But is the context in which I write today.

Like many before me, I am in search of the spirituality of Christmas. Or perhaps better, I seek the spiritual practice of Christmas. I often like to think of a spiritual practice as a path to a closer connection with the Divine, the one I call God.

What is the path of Christmas? Please note I am not asking what is the path to Christmas, but the path of Christmas. Christmas is not a destination, not a date on the calendar, but a way of living more deeply, more spiritually.

It begins in humility, the humility of Joseph accepting the child in whose creation he did not play a part and the need to leave his home in Nazareth and journey to Bethlehem by order of the government. And the humility of Mary, accepting a child for which she did not plan. Then there is their shared humility of being consigned to a stable for the birth, and being overwhelmed (I would think) by angels, shepherds, and wise man from another land and religious tradition coming to celebrate this event (something neither of them could have anticipated).

The first path of Christmas is humility, a way of being open to, and grateful for, the wonders of God, knowing we did not create these divine gifts, freely given to us without regard to our merit.

Hospitality is a path of Christmas, too. We have no name for the innkeeper, but he responded with kindness and the best hospitality he could muster (probably more likely a cave than a barn-like stable).  We could even say the other animals in the stable were hospitable, by making room for the unexpected visitors. The visitors from the East also practiced the hospitality of guests by bringing gifts. And every birth is a form of hospitality by God, welcoming a new life into the world.

Of course, peace is a path of Christmas–the peace that descends after a successful birth when mother and child can nestle with each other and the father and others can gaze adoringly. And love, too, in much the same way. And surely joy.

But I want to focus on hope as a significant path of Christmas, specifically the hope of God and others inspired by God–shepherds, wise men, angels–that somehow this birth, this particular birth, would change much in the world for the better. Every birth is transformative, certainly for the mother and the newborn, and usually for others affected by it. In this sense, every birth is marked by hope that the changes wrought will be part of creating a new and better life, not only for the child and the parents but for others as well.

This birth is laden with meaning, however, that goes beyond the immediate persons involved. Whether the details in the biblical accounts are accurate in our modern/postmodern sense of historical truth is really beside the point because the story has become imbued with great power and portent. As the tradition has unfolded, Christmas hope for a world filled with love, peace, and joy is divinely inspired. Such are our hopes, yes, but their source is God. That makes the hope powerful, indeed, provided we continue to acknowledge the source of the power. The same can be said of hospitality.

creation Sistine ChapelIn some ways, then, we are back at humility, recognizing God as the source of all that is good and holy. This is not the humility of groveling at the feet of God but an awareness that God is the author of good, a humility that leads us to sing songs and give thanks and share generously what we have received and are receiving.

So let me be as clear as I can be. There is nothing wrong with buying gifts to share with others, or receiving them either, or to having parties where we welcome friends, family, and neighbors to celebrate and are welcomed by others. There is nothing inherently wrong in buying things from merchants, for ourselves and for others. That is part of being in community, and it is a way of generosity.

07 Jan 2012, Lalibela, Ethiopia --- Pilgrims making a queue at the corridor into a cave church at Christmas. Simple farmers, many of them have camped around the churches for as long as a week. --- Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis
07 Jan 2012, Lalibela, Ethiopia — Pilgrims making a queue at the corridor into a cave church at Christmas. Simple farmers, many of them have camped around the churches for as long as a week. — Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

But the path of Christmas is so much more than those activities. The path of Christmas is quiet and deep and self-giving, leaving (even breaking) us open to change we cannot predict or control (think about Mary and Joseph starting out on the journey of parenthood and where they ended up).

That is the Christmas I seek, the one I cannot control, the one that brings new revelation and spiritual health and depth into my life, new peace into the world, new love between enemies and those alien to each other.

I feel like a Christmas pilgrim, enjoying the glitter and the sounds and swirling bodies all around me, on my way into a neighboring land where the glitter is of deeper hues, the sound more angelic than even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the energy more organic and less frenetic.

That is my Christmas path, beautiful and challenging. I hope your Christmas path is too. Perhaps we can even share some holy gifts.







Jesus of the Umbilical Cord

Too often, we who are Christians have taken the life out of our religion. Our traditions become relics, almost bloodless, empty of connection with how people, we, actually live (and how the people in the stories on which the traditions are based actually lived, too).

Of course, this varies by culture and particular religious traditions. For example, Three Kings Day, or the Feast of the Epiphany, does not get much notice in many western Christian circles–but in Hispanic or Latino/a cultures and churches, January 6 is a really big deal.

We Three KingsDespite the song that celebrates the “Twelve Days of Christmas”–omnipresent in every store for at least six weeks prior to December 25–most people are surprised that, according to the liturgical calendar, Christmas actually lasts twelve days.

Surely, they think, the last day of Christmas is the day, or maybe two days, after Christmas Day when people rush to the malls for bargains and/or to return or exchange gift items. Truly, Christmas has become a secular holiday for most, and a much-needed boost to consumer spending. For most, Christmas begins when the shopping season begins, and ends with Christmas dinner or a day or two of post-holiday shopping. In the church, Christmas Day is the beginning not the ending. Or at least, it is supposed to be.

And, much of the time, when there is attention to Epiphany, it is the magi who are most noticed, even though they came to see the infant. Of course, the infant is the center of the story. Infants usually are.

The infant. Do we really believe he was a baby? He is usually pictured soundly sleeping, or at least resting quietly–“no crying he makes,” says the carol we sing each year. What kind of baby is that? Is that a real baby? Three Wiser women

And what about his parents and the situation they were in? The stable and the manger-crib always look so tidy, as if Housekeeping had just come by and gotten everything in order.

Several pictures that I have seen over the past couple of weeks have reminded me that despite the sweet carols we sing, and the adorable pageants that youth offer in many churches, this was not an easy time for Mary (any one who has given birth or even been present as someone else is doing so knows it is incredibly hard, painful work), and even Joseph and Jesus, too.

And the magi–whether there were three or 103, the biblical record does not say, despite the tradition–seem an odd group, bringing treasure and worship, even though they were not Jewish, let alone Christian(!).

So, pictured to the right is a humorous attempt to make the story a bit more real–the Three Wiser Women arriving to provide more homely, practical gifts needed by the parents of every newborn.

The Christ Child St_Martin-in-the-Fields sculpture by Michael ChapmanAnd pictured here are two views of a sculpture at the entrance to St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Anglican Church), Trafalgar Square, London, by Michael Chapman. In one, we see the whole sculpture from a side view. The sculptor has chiseled the phrase “In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and lived among us” from chapter one of John’s Gospel around the stone (visible is “In the beginning” on the right, and “lived among us” on the left).

The second shows the top of the sculpture, with the baby Jesus looking different from most portrayals. First, he has baby boy genitals. We don’t often see Jesus this way. And even more startling is the umbilical cord still attached.

The Christ Child St Martin in the Field close up

When I saw this, at a Jazz Vespers service at the Gayton Kirk (Presbyterian Church) in Richmond’s West End, I was deeply moved. Here is a “real baby,” vulnerable like babies are–not wrapped in swaddling clothes with angels singing and shepherds and worldly wise men praying–given a prominent place among the high and important buildings (including the towering monument to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar) in this historic section of one of the world’s major cities.

Yes, he is carved out of stone–the sculpture can appear as a tombstone, so perhaps the artist seeks to  remind us of what happens later–but I can actually hear a baby cry, and know that he will pee and poop, and that when the cord is cut there will be blood as there always is during birth.

This baby became a real man, the most perfect and wise and powerful man of whom I have ever known, and for me, as for so many other believers, he lives among us still. Seeing him this way, and seeing the women above, reminds me that just as the baby was a human being so was the full-grown man.

He is the Lord to me, but he is Lord with whom I can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, and shoot the breeze, as well as Lord from whom I can continually learn how to be fully human, that is, how to live the fullness of the divine origins we share, as children created in the image of God.