And yet, I love this season, the music, the smells, the lights. I loved the peace and solidity of the past few days; the simplicity of my family’s celebration, the relaxed, unhurried, unstressed way which we have settled into celebrating Christmas Day over the years.
But I’ve been feeling more unsettled than usual by all of the seasonal hype. Maybe it’s the still-sour economy, the awareness of the distress felt by so many in a culture where the material expectations of this holiday are met primarily by the expenditure of large amounts of cash. Or maybe my unease is rooted in a deep realization of the emotional fragility occasioned by these days; it may be the season to be jolly, but for many, painful circumstances or the absence of loved ones make it hard, if not impossible, to enter wholeheartedly into the fa la la-ness of it all.
And then there is the Christmas story itself, blurred over the millennia into a soft romantic tale of a newborn babe attended by angels. The raw, unburnished story though, is one of poverty, coercion, indifference, and repression. In Luke’s version, it begins with a forced, harsh journey to comply with an oppressive law; in Matthew’s, the new family become refugees as they flee the jealous violence of a demagogue.
How to sort out all of the competing emotions and meanings of this season? And how reconcile the cultural messages of festive good times with the harsh reality of so many of our lives? A sampler from some of the seasonal discourse on a hard-edged corner in Philadelphia:
The grief that suddenly overwhelms a man who lost his partner this year, murdered on these cold streets.
The group of homeless men discussing their options; with 17 degree temperatures, is it time to go into a shelter? Or given the cold and the holidays, will the police feign blindness for a few more nights at 30th Street Station or the airport? They support each other in their individual discernments, offering suggestions, information, vital data for how to survive another night.
Or the admission that Christmas consists of a solitary cup of coffee and can of soup for one feeling dissed and dismissed by both family and social service workers whose attempts at help, however well-motivated, are simply inadequate to the need.
Another agonizes over family conflicts and tensions, feeling caught in the middle, pondering how best to be a loving presence in the midst of conflict and division.
I have often seen evidence of ‘the Christmas spirit’ in this street corner community throughout the year: acts of generosity, kindness, and compassion on bright Spring mornings and radiant Autumn days. But ah, the holidays expose all our griefs; they are the omnipresent shadows cast by the holiday lights and glitter.
So where is the hope and joy of this season?
Perhaps those seasonal carols and songs just need a little exigesis and a bit of contemporary contextualizing. Born in a stable. A stable. Can we let that reality sink in? A study issued a few days before Christmas reports that 50 % of American children have been on foodstamps at some point during their childhood….. babies being born in stables. But perhaps watched over by angels, too. It simply may be that we are the angels attending these children, singing the good news of their divine origin and potential. If not us, then who?
It’s been said that God is a verb: we ‘God’ each other every time we love, every time we are the face of compassion to another. And God dwells in all of us, including those of us wracked by poverty, addiction, and mental illness. The Good News is that we can all birth God into the world any day we choose. Every single one of us. Now there’s hope for the New Year…..a year full of seconds and minutes, hours, days, and weeks for each of us to choose in whatever way is uniquely ours to participate in moments of Incarnation, to be Love, to throw ourselves into the daily work of Christmas, which is to ease and heal those griefs and the poverty and indifference that are the root of so many of them. Happy, Loving, Healing New Year to All.