I've had so many conversations β and overheard still more conversations β about the demands of Christmas that to me, the collective manifold holiday woe enumerated these past several weeks seems a lot like the perpetual cloudy mist hanging over our city. Nothing is quite clear to my eye or to my mind. Is it that we feel overwhelmed by the pressure of the holidays? Or is it that we feel pressure to be overwhelmed by the holidays? Pressure to attend parties? Or pressure to give them? Overwhelmed by the giving of gifts? Or overwhelmed to receive them?
A conversation I can recall very clearly is one I overheard this past Monday on the train into Manhattan. A middle-aged gentleman turned to another passenger, who was accompanied by his young daughter, and lamented: "I have to spend the entire day today in the city shopping for my kids Christmas gifts." "And then, to top it off, I have to spend the entire day Wednesday wrapping them." The father of the young daughter responded as kindly and as gingerly as possible, trying to support his newfound frazzled friend while at the same time scrambling to preserve his daughter's innocent childhood conviction that the Clause family and its band of happy elves are in fact not simply the shoppers,
but the sole makers and the wrappers and the deliverers of Christmas presents.
O, how common it is to talk about and act festively, as though festivity itself is a chore. There are trees to trimmed. Halls to deck. Lights to string. Flowers to arrange. Cards to write. Stars to hang. And creches to assemble. To say nothing of cookies to bake. And hams. And geese. Turkeys. And tofurkies to cook. Friends, if joy is a demand, this I know clear as a sunny day: it is no joy at all. But an absolutely drudgery. No wonder so many people will toss their Christmas trees out to the curb tomorrow, and stores will begin removing their decorations. We didn't really want any of it there in the first place.
There's a sort of new-age aestheticism that would tell us to ignore it all β a growing religious contingent resurrecting the old adage to focus instead on the "reason for the season"; and demanding society follow suit. I don't know about you, but I am long tired of that artificial divide. More recently I have become quite concerned for it. We live in a society marked by increasing religious diversity. Which means it is irresponsible, if not dangerous to insist a diverse general public conform to the sacred β keep the
Christ in ChristMass. It is just as irresponsible, just as dangerous, perhaps more so, for religious to dismiss public trends.
The Word became flesh not to be separate from society, but to be among it, to shape it, mold it, speak in it, form it and reform it. If our neighbors are tired of Christmas, if we are tired of Christmas as it has become; worn out by the hamster wheel of consumerism, the seemingly obligatory nature of holiday joy, then religion, Christianity β thousands of years of collective human wisdom β has something to say today.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, who is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being.
God has something to say today with this Son, this Holy Child. A Son all too easy to dismiss as insignificant, or reduce to child's play. An infant. Born of Mary. And cared for by her still unwed spouse.
God has something to say today with this Holy Child. Who the minute he is born becomes an enemy of King Herod and Emperor Augustus'
God has something to say today with this Holy Family. Who must flee to another country. To escape death. Death which would hunt this little child down his entire life long.
In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, who is the reflection of God's glory. As important to pay attention to as the Glory of God present in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and before that in the Arc of the Covenant. The reflection of God's glory. As important to pay attention to as the reflection of God's glory in a pillar of cloud and fire leading people to freedom. As important to pay attention to as the reflection of God's glory in a burning bush. The reflection of God's glory in which, by a Son, God comes to humanity. Humanity does not go to God. The reflection of God's glory in which, by a Son, God becomes incarnate in humanity. Humanity does not become God.
God who chooses to show glory by becoming flesh and bones, with all its hunger, thirst, tears shed over the city, laughter with revelers, sickness, and pain, the delight of friendship, and sting of its loss, weeping at the tomb of friends. God who chooses to show glory by flesh and
bones, hands and feet and side wounded. Whose fleshy, incarnate body would even die. Perhaps to show us that in this world God gives us we need God. And that we also need each other. God and humanity are in fact inseparable. So inseparable that we care for each other: you know, the absurd Christian idea that what you do even unto the least of these, you do unto God made flesh. The body of Christ.
And here's the thing about the body of Christ. It does not exist for itself. but for others. Blessed for others. Broken for others. Given for others. If we take the incarnation of God made flesh, the reflection of God's glory speaking a Word to us today, not simply as a religious conviction, for us or for society to conform to but as something to live out -- something to put into practice in our daily lives, in our daily lives living in society β then religious conviction becomes something far greater than conformation, it becomes reformation.
Religious conviction becomes spirituality. Spirituality that influences everything. How we shop. How we give. How we decorate. What we say. How we relate to one another, our body politic. The incarnate body of Christ of which we are a part becomes not simply an alternative to
the incessant drive of economized Christmas, and economized society spinning and spinning every other day of the year But the incarnate body of Christ norms our role in society, can even re-craft society. Re-humanize it.
The beloved Christmas prayer puts it this way: O Lord you wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. In a manger some 2,000 years ago. And not only 2,000 years ago, but down through the generations, here, again today.
Its a frail business. The fate of this incarnate one is a cross. But this fleshy flesh; this vulnerable flesh β strained and suffering flesh -- flesh that will die -- that we experience that is all around us; this human loving and striving for justice and truth and love that takes flesh in us; by God's promise this flesh survives; is transformed and is transforming; thrives, and resurrects us all.
Take and eat. And be. Be the body of Christ still crying out for a more perfect humanity, a more perfect peace and joy in our city, among nations, in our homes, and in our hearts.