My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
– Thomas Merton
This year I’m more excited about Christmas than ever. I’m stoked because it’s a pagan holiday infused with Christ. I’m pumped because it declares it’s GOOD to be messy, emotional, and complex humans. I’m smiling because it names closure a myth and concludes the journey is the thing.
First things first, I’ve understood for a good while that as best we know Jesus was NOT born on December 25th (two aspects of the story given us in the Gospels, the census and shepherds tending their flocks, were quite unlikely to occur in the winter). Instead, early Christians picked that date to celebrate so the pagan sisters and brothers joining their ranks could keep their sacred winter celebration. I’d also learned quite a few of our Christmas traditions (the tree, the lights, etc.) were taken from pagan practices. Being a HUGE lover of people coming together, joyful solutions for everyone, diverse tribes blending and incorporating differences, and bliss spreading, I thought this was all pretty cool … but then I listened to a recent podcast with Dr. Alexander Shaia being interviewed by Rob Bell and I realized I really had no idea how FANTASTIC the fusion of pagan and Christian practices was (you can check it out here: https://robbell.podbean.com/e/alexander-shaia-on-the-mythic-power-of-christmas/).
Dr. Shaia recounts how for the first several hundred years of Christianity, when it came to feasts/holidays Easter was THE thing. This worked great with the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean peoples (where the religion started), as they operated on a lunar calendar and Easter’s celebration of spring fit their traditions. Yet, as the faith began to spread into the Alps and Northern Europe things changed. Broadly speaking you can name the people there the Christians encountered and hoped to convert, Celts.
The Celts (stretching from Ireland to Turkey) were very in tune with the rhythms of the sun and the land, the affects of sunlight on soil, the impact of rain on the ground, the cycles of the seasons, and so on. The Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, was a BIG holiday for them as it marked the turning point in the year. Days went from getting shorter to longer, the cold of winter began warming, and the season of death started transforming into one new life. The Winter Solstice was both an acknowledgment of the sun and nature’s ongoing, cyclical drama of death and rebirth, and a hopeful celebration of the COMING sunlight, rebirth of plant life, and the increase of food (i.e. LIFE), all on the shortest, least light-filled day of the year (i.e. most DEAD).
At their best (and I don’t know about you, but like our ancestors I have both “best” moments and “less” moments), the early Christians saw this practice and responded with something like this: You celebrate the sun and honor nature’s cycle of death and rebirth on the Winter Solstice? Fantastic! We’ve got a story about the birth of God’s Son that goes with that and will blow your mind! The Christians saw, pointed out, and honored the similarities in their two traditions and brought them together with Christmas (i.e. Christ’s Mass).
The Winter Solstice stands for the darkest dark. It demarks the coldest cold. That day/holiday symbolizes death. It was when food was the scarcest, light was the shortest, and cold was the fiercest. In the face of this reality, the Celts celebrated the sun and the life and light it brings. They remembered spring was on its way with its warmth, food, and brightness.
Embracing and amplifying the pagan Celts’ point of view and holiday, the early Christians essentially shared with them this: Through Jesus the Christ we learned the Truth you’re celebrating gets even bigger and better, more personal and universal. Grace comes in our darkest hours. A richer life is always on the other side of death.
What I’m saying is Jesus the Christ is an instance where the micro mirrors the macro, the story and truth of the individual reflects the Story and Truth of the Universe. In the Christian tradition, passages such as those found in John 1, Colossians 1, and Ephesians 1, show the Christ is the architect of, blueprint for, creator of, and loving glue that enlivens and holds together EVERYONE and EVERYTHING (many name this the Cosmic Christ). Meanwhile, Jesus is this cosmic reality manifested in a particular body, at a specific time, and in a precise place.
In short, Christmas celebrates what Jesus the Christ reveals to be True for you and me, that the universal patterns of death and rebirth, loss and gain, and hurt and healing that we see in the seasons, nature, and the stars, also apply to you and I and every other individual. Jesus the Christ being born is God revealing to us cosmic realities every person can trust in every place; foremost among these are: Grace comes in our darkest hours, light shines in the blackest nights, love infuses all reality, and new life comes on the other side of deaths (literal and metaphorical, big and small). Author and Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr says it like this:
“We might say that creativity and new life have a cost. The cost looks like death but really isn’t. We perceive death and loss as enemies and afflictions because they appear to be the opposite of life. Spiritually speaking, to somehow embrace loss is to find eternal life. Death allows us to be united with what is really real. To avoid all loss, to avoid all letting go, is to avoid transformation into God, into union, into something more. Wisdom teachers say that if you spend your whole life avoiding dying, you’ll lose your real life.
This is about as counterintuitive as it gets. There is no rational explanation or proof. We have to experience it to know that it is in fact true—just as true for us humans as throughout the natural world. As Jesus said, “You must lose your life to find your life” (Matthew 10:39; 16:25).
As Rohr says, it’s totally counterintuitive … YET when we go through it and reflect on our experiences, I think we find it to be true. For instance, just over four years ago my second wife divorced me. Without going into all the details, let me just say that was the darkest and hardest experience of my life … AND it was THAT death, darkness, and desertion, which transformed into more INCREDIBLE peace, joy, bliss, life, and love than I could ever have dreamed of (and I’m an optimist!).
(Here’s my daughter and I before seeing the Nutcracker in Seattle, it’s an annual tradition of ours and a prime Christmas example of how joy became my constant companion FROM my darkest of dark times).
Along the same lines, when I think about it, isn’t the whole premise of Christmas crazy and counterintuitive in the BEST of ways? Consider: God became a baby? God cried/cries? God pooped and had diaper changes? God got tired and slept? God had hard, trying, and emotional days? God eventually died? What the what? My point is I think Christmas and God becoming a human in the form of baby Jesus is a Divine affirmation that it is GOOD to be human in all of our messiness, emotions, and complexity.
It seems to me we somehow got this notion that God is unfeeling, unmovable, stoic, and like some cosmic Zen master who lives in a cave and is detached and removed from the cares and troubles of the world. Consciously or unconsciously we then think we should be like that, we come to view ultimate reality as uncaring. I think it’s easy to think/believe God is “above” the fray, removed from emotions, detached from the troubles of the world, far away from and/or unaffected by our ordinary everyday lives and feelings in our society. Christmas, though, is a counter-narrative to this story, which shows God is sensitive, says our feelings are to be felt, processed, and gone through, and names it good and beautiful to be human, precisely in the midst of our messiness.
The Christmas story and Christian beliefs say Jesus is the Divine becoming FULLY human, in ALL of our messy beauty. It’s God WITH us and FOR us, a Divine declaration that our lives, the human experience is good, if I ever saw one.
Speaking of the human experience, I recently heard someone say, “Closure is a myth.” We never arrive. There are certainly stages to grief, for instance, but we’re never truly “done”. Think of spiritual growth and development, which of us has finished transforming into more kind, courageous, and loving people? Consider sports, there’s a new championship to win every year. Think about love, do we ever stop seeking to give and receive love? Do we ever stop telling and showing those closest to us that we love them? Are we ever done doing dishes? Are we ever finished washing clothes? When is healing from a physical or relational wound done? Is it ever really?
Another way to say this is the journey is the thing, because as soon as we “arrive” somewhere in our journey of growth and development, we’re ready to take another step on the road. As a kid I remember moments after Christmas was over, I was already dreaming about the NEXT year’s presents and celebration. I’m a huge football fan, and days after my team won it’s first Super Bowl (#gohawks) I was already envisioning our next title, and the championship after that.
Christmas comes every year, year after year. Christmas is never finished and never stops coming again. I think life is the same, and God coming to share the human experience with us marks and celebrates the journey of our human experience as the thing. Christ is born to show the Divine is with us precisely here and now, smack dab in the midst of our ever evolving, always moving, twisting and turning journey. Christmas, then, is our Creator inviting us to enjoy every moment, name every person as precious, declare every second a miracle, experience the bliss that’s in every situation, feel the heaven that’s in all locations, and see the Divine Love that’s all around and within us.
What do you think about Christmas and my thoughts on it?
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Grace and peace,