Christmas, Essentials and Extravagance
Okay, okay, Christmas has its problems, the chief one according to the time-worn slogan is the difficulty of "putting Christ into Christmas."
Sure, it's easy to be scandalized by the commercialism surrounding and infiltrating this holiday. Jesus, the friend of the meek of all the earth, must find it a rich contradiction that we should be encouraged to celebrate his birthday by exchanging diamonds. And generous spirit that Jesus is, never one to insist on his own importance, I suspect even he would find it more than curious that he shares top billing on December 25th with a fellow in a red suit and white whiskers dispensing X-Boxes.
But those of you who know the mind-bent of Critical Christian (from years of railing against the railers) would be surprised to hear me preach any sermon on Christmas excesses. That, after all, is what Christmas is also all about, excess. Caloric intake, overextended credit, exuberant lights and high electricity bills, unaffordable gratuities, conifers domesticated, fruit cakes abandoned... well, you get the yuletide picture, too much, too much, and, boy, do I love it. Even Santa and the perfume hawkers at Macy's.
How on earth do I reconcile the first Christmas with what it has become?
So let's go the first Christmas. By way of that most Catholic of prayers, the Hail Mary: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." Womb. Ah, the incredibility of it all! Theologians name it, after the Apostle Paul's clue, "the scandal of particularity." That the eternal, the universal, the omnipotent, the I Am Who I Am, the ineffable, God, should become human, one particular human being. Incarnation, the "in-fleshing of deity." Not to be believed, insists the rational mind; no proper God, if there is one, would do such a thing.
In the face of such rational protests, the prayer hurls the word "womb." No one has ever become human any other way, save by issuing from a mother's womb. It's the primal experience of everyone of us, hidden in some deep recess of the brain not accessible to memory. If death on the cross is God's final earthly pledge of solidarity with us, then Jesus' birth at Bethlehem is that last deed's earliest precursor. "Womb" insists that God has become one of us, divested of the power and privilege of heaven, vulnerable to the ills and temptations to which we all are prone.
And that's the shining diamond (!) at the center of our celebrations: God with us, God born.
The problem with Christmas puritans, those hell-bent on putting Christ back into it, is that, in their religious fervor, they ignore the humanity of God. God's wombness. For the anti-commercialism-ists, it's more about holiness than kindness, miracles than companionship, angels than shepherds (first century delinquents!), adoration than celebration. Puritan Increase Mather (who he? Harvard's sixth president, that's who) would excommunicate Charles Dickens.
Increase would also, lingers the suspicion, have a few harsh words for Jesus on that night in Bethany when a large vial of precious perfume is poured on the Galilean's head. The bleeding heart liberal in my own soul understands and cavils that the perfume should not be wasted in an impulsive extravagance when it could be sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus, however (and you can almost see his red stocking cap and the twinkle in his eye), will have none of that guilt and predicts generations to come will remember the anointing woman's lavish deed. They (the generations) have and we do (remember)!
Which brings me to Christmas present. I have been divested, if not defrocked, of my priestly duties. The world may no longer be my parish but it is my sanctuary. The locker room three days a week. Lowes, when anytime, which means often, something in the house needs fixing. Peoples Bank, the ATM, of course, not the tellers. Waldbaums or Stop and Shop. These are the scenes of my peripatetic ministry in retirement, places where the name of God is rarely mentioned, except in anger or surprise, where moms and dads and most of us wind down our days on the way to eternity. A world messy, indifferent, too often bloody and, yet, wonderful. My world, our world, it is the one to which Jesus transfers his residence from Mary's womb.
No complaints from me, then, when this same world pauses amid its desperate pursuit of happiness to sing a carol or two about a baby born in Bethlehem, whose way of peace, by God, shall in due time win the day even as it has won my own heart.