I wrote this a few weeks before Christmas and then forgot about it, but while going back through my notes the other day found it again, and liked it. So it’s out of sync with our shared calendar, but you know. Better late – or early, perhaps – than never.
It is a cliche to say that every day is a holy day, and yet more and more I find myself easing into a sort of quiet insistence that this must be so. Every day is holy, every stranger a guest who could be our own self. The work – at which we are not great but can be better – is to bring forth love according to our structure and the shared world those structures bring forth.
Yet I do hack down a tree, drag it into the living room, lug ornaments and lights from the attic and then sit happily by with Chrisoula while the kids decorate it. Every ornament has a story. The one that looks like our old dog Jake; the hand-carved Saint Nicholas Chrisoula bought me before we were married because I was drawn to its stern – almost religious – gaze; the fading glass balls that hung on my grandmother’s tree three quarters of a century ago.
In this way, decorating is also a narrative and performance. For it is in stories that we remember ourselves and in story-telling that we give ourselves away to one another. This much has always been sacred.
This year, when the kids finished decorating, Fionnghuala placed a nativity scene beneath the lowest boughs. I try to avoid overt religious gestures in public spaces, but this one made me happy. The birth story in Luke’s Gospel is one of my favorite stories of all time; growing up, my father read it to us every Christmas Eve. Whenever I hear it, or read it, it is Dad’s voice that I hear.
Of course, the actual historical birth of Jesus is lost to us. Nobody takes notes when a peasant is born; they only take notes for kings. Luke’s gospel reframes Jesus’ origins in a manner more fitting to the evangelist’s vision of Jesus as both fulfilling an ancient prophecy and begetting a new world. In Luke’s telling, Jesus is born a king who eschews the trappings of traditional royalty. His kingdom, as such, is not of this world. It signifies a new order, one that inverts old power structures of family, state and economy in order to introduce a radical equality and inclusiveness that is love.
Luke always leaves me a little breathless.
Still, as Nietzsche pointed out, “there was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” And Albert Schweitzer, no slouch in the selfless love department, noted that “what has been presented as Christianity during these nineteen centuries is only a beginning, full of mistakes, not full blown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus.”
In other words, there were some good ideas floating around that manger that have yet to receive a fair hearing and application. Perhaps they never will. Our species is nothing if not predictable.
What, then, am I doing with this tree? This nativity scene? This ancient story echoing in my brain in my late father’s voice?
Well, I am not especially interested in Kings – worldly or otherwise. And as for births in stables (not to mention deaths on crucifixes), I’m a firm believer that Caesar has a vested interested in making sure they don’t happen. People shouldn’t be tortured and executed and births should not be marginalized but made safe and welcome. As Heinz von Foerster says, “A is better off when B is better off.” This is simple common sense, isn’t it? Do we really need a supernatural explanation?
Later in Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus has been executed by the Roman government, two of his disciples meet – and fail to recognize – Jesus while on the road to Emmaus. Not until they insist he break bread with them rather than face the road at night alone do they recognize their late teacher.
This is a not nonfiction! It is a story, and a good one. Pure fiction to delight our heart and tantalize our mind. Stripped of 1:1 correspondence with history, the story becomes a reflection of an idea almost certainly embodied by Jesus and certainly dear to his earliest followers: i.e., we meet Christ in the other when we make the other welcome. Rather than condemn the stranger to the road, we give them a bed. Rather than consign the hungry to more hunger, the lost to more wandering, the poor to births in stables, the lonely to more angst, the imprisoned to crosses and gas chambers, we . . . welcome them, as our own self. When they are better off, we are better off. It’s not Christian; it’s human. It’s not even just human; it’s love.
In this way, Jesus is born and dies and is born again and executed again over and over in our midst. He is as near to us as our children and as far as the margins where the refugees and the destitute make clear our grave failure to love in the ordinary way that is given us to love.
Thus, our Christmas trees are nothing if they don’t turn us in the direction of the lost and forsaken. Our nativity scenes are a mockery if they don’t jettison us to the edges of society where the old story of the forgotten lost and poor reenacts itself over and over.
If Christmas comes once a year – if holiness is constrained to special occasions – then the whole point of remembering this strangely paradoxical King named Jesus is moot. His anti-Kingdom – in which love replaces hate, inclusivity undoes tribalism, and cooperation and coordination dissolve conflict – goes on unrecognized. I don’t know if it’s possible to bring this radical love forth; you don’t either. But really, at this juncture, what do we have to lose by trying? And how else can we try but together?
Thus, I turn to the tree and the nativity and the gospel narrative in order to remind myself that as yet I am not Christian, but that something in me stubbornly insists that the fundamental transformation remains possible. It has nothing to do with Christmas; it has everything to do with love.