December 22, 2011 —
Christmas 2011. December 25. Piles of paper from unwrapped gifts. Appropriate sighs and thanksgivings. Searches for receipts to exchange unwanted gifts.
Another Christmas down. The annual religious services were pretty. The music was nice, if a little stale from being an incessant background for shopping. (Okay, a lot stale.) The decorations are pretty.
But is that all there is?
A lot of expectations are hung on the Christmas tree. The well-named gross national product depends on this allegedly Christian holiday. It’s a season of excess that ends on December 25 (although the church Christmas season only begins then). It’s the commercial Christmas, with an army of Santas to enforce it. The goal seems to be to trigger the warm glow of Hallmark emotions. Again, is that all there is?
It is human to delight in giving. The wonderful feast of Chanukah prolongs giving as the miracle of the oil that wouldn’t run out is celebrated. Christians recall the miracle of God’s love, born helpless among uncaring humanity. Other traditions respond to the darkness of winter and the hope of light to come. It should be a season of hope and generosity.
But too often, the miracle of Christmas becomes simply surviving it. This season can be cruel for those who have lost jobs, homes, savings and, especially, loved ones. Memory’s cruel tricks remind so many of their losses. Wars, invasions and occupations sacrifice young people on the altars of selfishness, greed and nationalism. Dictators are overthrown and replaced by other dictators. The rich seem to grow wealthier and more powerful, while the poor wither like grass. Is Christmas yet another cruel joke?
Look at the Christmas story. It’s more than a sweet infant sleeping in a borrowed hay trough. This is a baby born to a family of little consequence, in a fractious corner of the Roman Empire. When a group of astrologers came to view the infant whom they saw as a king, a jealous tyrant, Herod, ordered baby boys to be slaughtered to prevent this perceived threat to his power. The child and his family escaped to Egypt. I rather doubt they were documented immigrants. They were desperate.
The account speaks more to the poor and alienated than to the well-to-do or powerful. A canticle, or song, puts these words in mother Mary’s mouth as she proclaims the greatness of the Lord: “He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty…” To the poor, good news, but not exactly material for heart-warming television for the average viewer.
And yet… I have been watching Christmas reruns of M*A*S*H, that great antiwar series, and God’s love appears in the smile of a war-shattered orphan. Perhaps, as the canticle suggests, it depends on where I look. It depends on where my heart is.
Perhaps there is comfort in a lovely Christmas carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” The song ends with the hope of peace on earth. Before it, however, is the third verse: “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring; O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”
That angelic song is in our hearts and in the love we share. It does not depend on things. It is a hope that can accept our powerlessness and our brokenness. It is hope that can trust in that Love greater than ourselves. It is hope that transcends expectations and rests in openness. It comes from the recognition of God’s love in the faces of both friends and enemies. It is the hope that yearns for true peace.
Indeed, there is hope.
[Mother Joan LaLiberte is the priest at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Callicoon, NY.]