Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas is an opportunity to tune into the sacred

It was hard not to be tuned into the possibility that Kate might be pregnant.  The tabloids   had been speculating for weeks.  The speculation came to an end when the Duchess of Cambridge required medical attention for acute morning sickness. At that point, Prince William’s office had little choice but to announce the pregnancy, even though the royal couple may have preferred to keep the news to themselves.

Reaction to the announcement came quickly as people tweeted their congratulations, which ranged from the predictable to the euphoric. The more euphoric statements described the pregnancy as a “global phenomenon” and as the “good news that everyone has been waiting for.”  There were predictions for the future: “this baby will secure the future of the monarchy for decades” and “this baby will be the most famous child in modern history.”  There were expectations of universal joy: “this baby will bring joy to many around the world.”

Thinking of a long ago pregnancy
This highly public pregnancy and the reaction to it make me think of another pregnancy. It was a pregnancy that did not generate widespread excitement, although it had certain notoriety. A young Jewish girl had returned from a visit to her cousin and she was obviously pregnant.  The news spread quickly. The rumor mill was working overtime. Instead of congratulations, there was innuendo and criticism.

While he felt betrayed, her betrothed kept his cards close to his heart as he pondered his next step. Like everyone else in the village, he wondered how this could have happened. Who was the father? 

While people were quick to condemn her, they wondered about the sanity of her betrothed.  If he were not the father, then he was a fool, treating her with an honor she did not deserve.  The women shunned her and the men were preparing to stone her.

This may have been the reaction that Mary and Joseph faced in their little town, where it was impossible to keep Mary’s pregnancy a secret. While people in the surrounding villages were talking about it, none were offering euphoric congratulations. In their view, this was a shameful pregnancy; it was definitely not good news. No one was waiting for this baby to secure the future of a nation. No one expected this baby to be a global phenomenon.

The people were wrong. This baby was good news and he would influence the lives of many. This baby, Jesus of Nazareth, was sacred; he was the expression of the presence of God among us.

Recognizing the sacred in our midst
That long ago pregnancy teaches us something about recognizing the sacred in our midst. The sacred manifests itself to us in subtle ways. Like a woman who has yet to discover that she is pregnant, we may be unaware that we carry the sacred within our being. Like the critics of Mary and Joseph, we may be unaware that the sacred is about to enter into our experience. We are not tuned in.

"Madonna with Child"
Francisco de Zubaran 1658
In the birth of the Christ child, we have a beautiful image of the sacred as immanent  and as transcendent. In Mary’s tender caress of her newborn son as he nurses at her breast, we have an image of the soul responding to the gentle touch of God’s presence.

In the tiny and dependent Christ child, we sense that the sacred is vulnerable and susceptible to neglect. We begin to understand that just as parents care lovingly for their child, we must nurture what is sacred within our self. Then, we are better able to recognize and respond to the sacred in others and in creation.

In the report of angelic choirs appearing in the night sky to announce the birth of this child, and in the legends of animals kneeling before this baby in a manger, we find a metaphor for the presence of the sacred in the world around us. 

Becoming pregnant with the possibility of transformation
While nurturing a sense of the sacred in a secular world may seem like foolishness, it is a trusting response to God’s invitation. God asks us to become pregnant with the possibility of our own transformation.  As an unborn baby slowly develops in the silence and darkness of the womb, our inner transformation occurs invisible to the eye, until, little by little, we give birth to the love and the joy manifested in that first Christmas, when a young Jewish mother wrapped her babe in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.  

 Frederico Barroci  1597

                                                  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Are you ready for Christmas?"

It’s that time of year when everyone is asking the question that makes even the most organized woman feel frazzled. “Are you ready for Christmas?” I am definitely not ready for Christmas, either materially or spiritually. 

When my children were young, I had deadlines for my Christmas preparations so that I would be ready.  I rushed around as if the coming of Christmas depended solely on my ability to get things done.

Over the years, I have scaled back. I bake less and I buy less. While many people I know have also scaled back on the purchasing of gifts, Christmas shopping remains a national obsession.

Black Friday is like a military operation
The madness begins on Black Friday. This year Black Friday dominated the media. It was as newsworthy as the possibility of war between Israel and Palestine, civil strife in Syria, and the fiscal cliff in the United States. It could be that Black Friday is worthy of all this media attention. After all, shopping on Black Friday has its war like elements as consumers fight to get the best deals and, as they repeatedly swipe their credit cards, consumers create their personal version of a financial crisis.

According to market researchers, the annual Black Friday shopping ritual is comparable to a military mission. One researcher noted that people plan their shopping mission weeks in advance, devising strategies to increase their chances of successfully obtaining the best deals.

Not everyone is impressed with Black Friday. Twenty-two years ago in Vancouver, Kalle Lasn of Ad Busters came up with the idea of “Buy Nothing Day”.  Lasn thought it was time to counter the blatant consumerism of Black Friday. He wanted to encourage discussion on the dark side of consumerism. The dark side of consumerism is the stress it places on the planet and the psychological consequences of the message that consumption equals happiness.

The Christmas season has become a time of excessive consumption. The excesses of the season, whether it’s credit card debt from overspending, an expanded waistline from overeating, or multiple hangovers from over imbibing, leave many people feeling less than satisfied when the New Year arrives.

Christmas creates a widespread feeling of goodwill
Celebrating, and the giving and receiving of gifts play an important role in Christmas.  They help to define the festive season, demarcating Christmas from the rest of the year. Christmas is the only holiday I can think of that creates such a widespread feeling of goodwill.  The spirit of Christmas inspires gladness, generosity, and greater civility among people.

When I think about the consumerism of Christmas, the words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind.  Isaiah uses the metaphor of a banquet to describe God’s invitation to live a fuller, more satisfying life. Why, God asks, do you waste your money on things that cannot feed your soul? Why do you work for things that give you no satisfaction?

The Christmas shopping season coincides with the liturgical season of Advent.  Advent is a time of spiritual preparation when Christians prepare to welcome ‘God-with-us’ in the birth of the Christ child. Advent is an appropriate time to counter bargain hunting with some soul searching.
Photo: Louise McEwan
I have learned to buy less and do less so that I can give more
Years ago, when the number of tasks I wanted to complete before Christmas began to overwhelm me, I had an insight. It was so obvious, yet it was something I had consistently overlooked. Christmas day would come and go, regardless of the state of my preparations. Christmas day did not depend on specialty baking, or a pile of gifts under a beautifully decorated tree. The beauty of our Christmas depended on the love in our hearts and in our home.  The thing that mattered most was my ability to be present to my family, my friends, and my God. Although I still search for the perfect gifts, I have learned to buy less and do less so that I can give more.

In a curious twist, Christmas leads us towards another Friday: one that is a counterpoint to Black Friday. While Black Friday’s all consuming focus is about filling up our lives with stuff, this Friday has a different focus. In the birth of the Christ child, Christmas points to Good Friday. Good Friday encourages us to become empty, so that we may live in the lightness of heart that characterizes the Christmas spirit. Christmas is the beginning of God’s strategic operation for us.