PONDERING THE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS
We are in the middle of the Christmas season. Refer to it as the "holidays" if you wish, but a generic, secular designation does not change the fact that, for most Americans, this is a season of spiritual significance. A spirit of peace and good will tend to pervade our communities, as well as our personal interactions with one another, during this time of year.
I myself was doubtful of this fact until I became a practicing attorney and noticed that "new cases" drastically ebbed during the month of December. I found myself more than once commenting, tongue in cheek, to a colleague that we lawyers could "stand only so much love and good cheer before going broke!" He responded philosophically, "Keep working on the 'old cases,' and look forward to the New Year, when business will again boom." He was right.
Recalling this conversation brings a slightly embarrassed smile to my face, but causes me to ponder anew the meaning of Christmas. Theologians have a special word in which they encapsulate its meaning. The word is "Incarnation." Christians claim that God, the Creator of the universe, was born in a Bethlehem stable, and became flesh and blood just like us. In the countenance of a baby, the world beheld the face of deity. Incarnatus Deus possesses, so far as reason goes, an undeniably "scandalous" nature, but still incorporates a compelling poetry that moves and is capable of transforming the world. As Ed Gungor, author of the popular and very readable little book, What Bothers Me Most About Christianity, characterized the Incarnation, "it is God embracing all the agony and all the pain of this world. And this gesture of taking on our pain is the most impressive sign of God's love for us. . . ."
God's love, set forth in the Christmas event, has inspired millions of people throughout the ages. Our own acts of love participate, I believe, in this divine reality. This is why love, even in the smallest proportion, is imbued with eternity. Love abides forever, St. Paul insists, while knowledge eventually passes away. And why not? Love surrenders; knowledge controls. Love is a pouring out; knowledge is a filling up. Love embraces vulnerability; knowledge safeguards against it.
Christmas comes each year as a message of triumphant hope. It finds us as we are and sets our weary hearts at ease, at least for a few moments. For some of us, this is nothing less than an assurance of well-being from on high.
Yet this season also dawns as a gentle word of judgment. Christmastime has a unique way of helping us catch a glimpse of our own identity in light of a higher standard. The "baby in a manger" judges the inner sanctums of our hearts – our ambitions, compulsions, disappointments, resentments, rage, despair, and loneliness while simultaneously evoking the better angels of our nature.
Many of us are overwhelmed by the world today. So much of what we hold dear in American culture is hanging by tenuous threads. Global economics and finance, not to say the prospects for peace itself, are precarious at best. As we survey the national and international scenes, uncertainties and ambiguities abound, along with the growing suspicion that "another shoe" is about to drop.
The primary implication of the Christmas event is that this gloomy existence in which we find ourselves is not an ultimate reality. This is good news. What is more, Christmas invites us to consider a novel idea, one which is unfathomable in its depth and heralded by the bards of old. Might there really be a God who identifies with the world's pain and suffering and who refuses to leave humanity to its own destructive devices? Has salvation truly come to the world? Could it be that what we know, or think we know, is only a small part of the story?
"Okay," you ask, "but how do we apprehend the 'truths' of Christmas?" It strikes me that a starting point may be the spirit of Christmas itself, personified in surrender, giving, and vulnerability. Yeah, that seems reasonable: appropriating the truths of Christmas through the spirit of love in which they dawn. Interesting! Shall we try it?
December 10, 2009