(76) the thing about Christmas

The thing is this: I just don’t feel ready for Christmas. I’m unprepared.

I’m listening to the music and everything. I’ve been to a couple Christmassy concerts. I’ve walked in the snow and marveled at the lights. I’ve even been participating in the Nativity fast as a means of preparing.

And yet…

Only very recently did I realize that Christmas actually wasn’t 3 weeks away anymore, but rather next week. In my mind it had been 3 weeks out for a while and I guess I expected it would somehow continue to be 3 weeks out forever and ever amen. Not so however. Which led to a small fantasy world (the fantasy world in which Christmas was perpetually at a distance) breakdown. Because I’m unprepared. Christmas cards hadn’t been written. Gifts haven’t been collected and wrapped and mailed. Baking hasn’t been done.

Then I went into philosophical freaking-out over-analyzing mode (oh-so-difficult to imagine me plunging into this, I know), because one of the Big Problems is that I don’t actually know why we buy all these gifts. Part of me felt anxiously compelled to rush out (or online) and quickly buy and mail! But the louder part was just confused. Remind me again, what exactly is the point here?

I realized that I know what I want the gift to communicate. I want it to say to the recipient: I love you, I’ve been thinking of you, even praying for you all year, then I saw this goofy little thingy-bop and it made me chuckle and I hope you’ll at least smile, maybe not because the gift is all that great, but because now you know for sure that I was thinking of you.

All of that in a silly little gadget that they might not even need. All of that somehow communicated unspoken in a thing – just how plausible is that really?

My motives are cloudy. The cultural tradition of gift-giving is muddied with materialism. And I live in a peculiar situation among the majority of the world in that most of the people I would give to don’t actually need anything, not really. Which makes it all seem kind of empty. And at this point, it seems too late anyway. I’m just letting it go for now. I’ll try to explain my conundrum in person to the affected parties. I anticipate that everyone will let me off the hook this year, excuse what feels like a moderately messy failure to me. Maybe if I just plan ahead, if I started thinking about this in July next year…(although this is ironic, since I have actually been thinking about this Christmas gift conundrum for a couple months at least, but took no action because I apparently was in denial that Christmas would tangibly come).

I am actually stuck at this point in the story right now. I’m writing this from the middle of it, not at the end when I can sum everything up in a brilliant one-liner. But here are a few things I’m gleaning today:

I think the so-called Christmas spirit might be more of a way of living to practice (one of generosity, compassion and unconditional love), rather than a transient wave of emotions. Which means that I can practice living the Christmas-way anytime. And this also means that it is fully unsurprising if it is, in fact, difficult to practice this Christmas living. It seems that all good practices are difficult along the way.

And I was reminded of two iconic Christmas figures as I sort-of trudged home from the store tonight, wrapped up in angst about all this:  Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch. Both stories are about someone missing the point of Christmas and then coming to his senses and finding joy. I do not enjoy being challenged to embrace joy when I’m in the middle of a good sulk. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, I enjoy sitting down in my distress. But do I really want to join the ranks of those missing the point? Maybe all I need sometimes is to step out of my distress, throw my energy into loving and expect to see the big reality of God bursting the seams into my mundaneness.

Which brings me to this last thing, a quote that our pastor sent out tonight that is somewhat overwhelming, yet also makes all my words and worries seem small in the shadow of what is Really Going On Here in Christmas:

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him…

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.”

– St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”

Come, let us observe the Feast.

Yes. Let’s do that.

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(35) advent : in body

“The daily practice of incarnation — of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh — is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper? With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead he gave them concrete things to do–specific ways of being together in their bodies–that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, from An Altar in the World p. 43)

I have been thinking often about Advent, the church season, and wondering again what it means, how to capture it, how to live well in the season. And I thought about it again as I read this chapter in Taylor’s book this morning. Maybe I am getting ahead of the measured progression through Advent by writing about incarnation now. Or maybe incarnation is the whole point of the season.

I didn’t think about this at the time, but I had a strange experience of incarnation a few days ago. It was in the midst of a terrifyingly intense conversation with a friend, during which I felt exquisitely challenged to speak truth with love into a relationship that, until then, had not invited that depth of honesty. In that “midst,” I was aware of my body, pressed as far into the armrest of the couch as possible, and my heart rate, which felt so quickened that I discretely pinched my wrist to feel my pulse, and my breathing, which I sought to attend to in a yogic attempt at calm and self-soothing.

My body was the means through which I engaged in this conversation, in this relationship. My body responded to the anxiety and intensity I felt. And it was also through my body, my mouth, mind, heart, that words and truth and love issued.

Is it too crazy to say that Jesus, His essence, His love, became embodied again in my body?

Yet isn’t that the mystery and miracle that we remember with such reverence during Advent? Hugely massive all-powerful all-Holy God took on a created body and walked among us, walked the journey that we walk, from messy, bloody birth to painful, sorrowful death. And then He said we would do the same thing. Live with God inside of us. Embody God.

Elizabeth Gilbert quotes the Hindu guru Swami Muktananda in Eat Pray Love when she marvels, “God dwells within you, as you.”

And I think of that conversation a few days ago again. I didn’t see Jesus there with us with my eyes, but a few times I knew with a deep intuition that He was there. He didn’t appear in a vision and speak audibly. But I spoke and stumbled and tripped over words of love and honesty and probably messed up, but overall, as best as I could, I spoke Jesus-language.

Incarnation. God in body, embodied, in Jesus, in us. I am not God, but He is in me. Through my body, He interacts with this small corner of the world.

This is all so crazy-amazing. Isn’t it?

Welcome to Advent.