The Quiet Light of Christmas

The Christmas tree stands quietly in the corner, its little lights pushing back the darkness, a silent memorial to a not-quite-silent night. The father was afraid, the mother in great pain, and the baby probably howled as babies do. They made sounds of distress and confusion, though we sing of comfort and joy.

This is the shock of Christmas, which remains a comfort and a scandal 2,000 years later.

It is shocking because, according to the story, this baby had a choice – to lay himself in Joseph’s hard hands, to plant himself the smallest seed in Mary’s womb, to burst frail and naked into a cold dark world.

Might God come gently? Allow himself to be overlooked and rejected because he so loves the world? Many hope not, for a loving God is still God, and no God is wanted here. They are done with Jesus as almighty Rome was done with Jesus. But Rome is long gone, and Jesus remains.

The light of Christmas is still pushing back the darkness, even here in America, where darkness grows. Even to us, a child is born, and to us, a son is given, calling across the ages that God is with us in our distress and confusion, that he came gently to offer us comfort and joy.

Perhaps we will welcome the Christ-child this year, amazed by the love and humility of God. Perhaps we will turn away. But this much is certain. When America has returned to dust as Rome returned to dust, Jesus will remain.

Are We Done With Wonder?

In this season, dominated by the claim of an ancient miracle, I’m thinking of the book in which this claim is recorded. It is a strange book, tone-deaf to our modern sensibilities.

It used to be called ‘the good book’, which seems odd because it speaks with moral authority and it claims definite knowledge of God’s thoughts and intentions. In our culture, that’s considered a recipe for evil, not good.

And, of course, the book speaks of miracles – lots of miracles – which, to a culture steeped in Darwinian disbelief, sets it squarely in the realm of fairy tale.

Take, for example, another story from the book; the story of Jonah in the belly of a whale. This story reports – I grant – a highly unexpected turn of events. If you think that the whale found the Jonah thing hard to swallow, just imagine the modern reader. In his experience, people who enter fish don’t come out in one piece. His disbelief, he thinks, is reasonable; a product of his experience.

But another, less obvious factor also deserves consideration. What if the tables have somehow been turned; that what we record as experience is actually colored or filtered by our disbelief? What if, because of his presuppositions, the modern reader has given little thought to the world he lives in, to even the body that he lives in? Perhaps he is less qualified than he thinks to measure even his own story’s plausibility.

Is it a greater miracle that a whale should swallow a man or that such an unlikely creature as a whale should exist at all? Is it a greater wonder that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale or that the reader has spent 270 days in the belly of a giantess? Very likely, the reader has somehow forgotten that fact or – more to the point – he has forgotten the wonder of it.

He lives in a world perishing for lack of wonder. He moves through it with eyes cast down, focused on what is man-made and man-sized. He thinks the cell phone in his pocket is a miracle and the intricate dance of the solar system a monotonous routine.

He thinks he knows the difference between the natural and the supernatural, but perhaps he is mistaken. He thinks that if something happens once, it is a miracle; if it happens a thousand times it is not. He thinks that the repetition of something marvelous removes the marvel and cancels the need for explanation or gratitude or reflection. He is surrounded by wonders that he has lost the ability to see.

And so, this ancient book is, in his ears, no longer ‘good.’ And of this ancient miracle, he thinks, we should not speak its name, let alone allow a cow or manger to appear in public. He is done with wonder.

But wonder is not done with him. After fishing Jonah from the whale, God said to him, “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

The greatest wonder in this universe, the Christmas story that no one can suppress, is this: “he has come to seek and to save those who are lost.”

The Antifa Bible

I heard a rumor that – just in time for Christmas – a noted Christian publisher will be releasing its new Antifa Study Bible.  Informed by current social themes, the gift Bible includes a flammable, tear-out section containing passages offensive to modern readers.  The remaining eight pages of scriptural quotations, handsomely bound in Corinthian leather, include several words from Jesus, the lyrics to “Imagine”, and a tribute to Moloch’s visionary nexus of fire and birth control.

The editor I reached for comment apparently misunderstood my concern.  “I know, I know,” he said, “Jesus had his racial blind spots regarding ‘Gentiles’, and bought into the misogyny of the whole Judaic tradition, but he did knock over some tables and threaten to tear down the temple.  In the end, I’d say he’s one of us.”

“B-but,” I stammered, “that’s not right!  Jesus didn’t come to ‘abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them’.” 

“Oh, I know,” he chuckled, “and we put that passage in the flammable section, of course, but one must make allowances.  I can’t very well sell a Bible with no Jesus in it, can I?”

“But why sell a Bible at all, if the historic Jesus is offensive to your audience?”

“Ah, well,” he said soothingly.  “I can see you don’t understand marketing, my boy.  The churches are full of people who are offended by the historic Jesus – or would be if they knew who he was.  But Jesus is bigger than history.  Nicer, you know.  More symbolic.  His ideals transcend those dodgy old Bible stories and hard-nosed moral platitudes.  It’s like he said, there’s ‘nothing to kill or die for’.  We’re ‘a brotherhood of man’ and all that.”

“Uh, no, that was John Lennon,” I said.

“Same difference,” he said, brightly.  “Look, people really like Jesus, so let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  We can get rid of religion but keep Jesus.  Better still, Jesus will get rid of religion for us, once we cut him loose from all that dogma, which nobody cares about anyway.”

“But he cared about it.  He said none of it should be changed.”

“Ah, well, don’t be too hard on him.  And I admit, his statues may have to come down, too, but let’s give it a year.  Long enough, at least, to get us through this election.”

“What’s the election have to do with it?”

“Those churches full of people I mentioned?  Well, lots of ‘em will be on our side if we do this right, and after that, it won’t matter.  Just remember: Jesus Is Nice.  And that can mean just about anything.”

“Even the opposite of what Jesus taught, you mean…”

“It doesn’t matter what he taught.  They’re not looking for instruction, they’re looking for comfort.”

I hung up, shaking my head and wondering if he was right or if this was all just a bad dream.

* * *

(Note: This story is fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, businesses, or products is purely coincidental.)

Of All the Things to Forget

We are, as one old American said, a house divided. In his day, we were divided by the evil of slavery. In our day, we are divided by our memories of his day.

But memory is too strong a word, for none of us was there and few of us know much about those who were. Weakness in knowledge does not, apparently, diminish the strength of opinion and I hear mournful accusations to the effect that racism “is shamefully enshrined in our Constitution”.

Abraham Lincoln would understand our day better than we understand his. Not 75 years since the Constitution was written, some were already working to obscure our nation’s identity and history, defending slavery and setting us on the path to civil war. Lincoln responded as we should respond, by examining the facts.

In the Cooper Union speech Lincoln delivered as a presidential candidate in 1858, he carefully documented the voting records of “the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto” in regards to slavery and demonstrated that “our fathers – the men who made the Constitution – decided this same Constitutional question in our favor, long ago – decided it without division among themselves”.

“We do,” he said, “in common with our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, declare our belief that slavery is wrong”. He pleaded with his audience to “speak as they spoke, and act as they acted upon it. This is all Republicans ask – all Republicans desire – in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.”

Slavery existed on this continent before there was an America and, as Lincoln said while debating Stephen Douglass, “The fathers of the Government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it should be in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Lincoln appealed to the founders’ example to defend his own opposition to slavery – he never imagined they would be themselves accused of favoring that evil, but that is where we find ourselves today.

To those who would expand slavery, Lincoln complained “You will rule or ruin in all events” and “It was not we, but you, who discarded the old policy of the fathers”.

We, too, live among some who would “rule or ruin in all events”, those who – in Milton’s words – think it “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”. They use our fading memories against us and discard the old policy of the fathers, calling into question even our fundamental agreement that “all men are created equal”.

Please, let’s read some history (and Mr. Lincoln’s speeches are a great place to start) before we surrender our rightful pride in the founders’ vision for a free country.

http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/…/speeches/cooper.htm
http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/…/speeches/house.htm

All the Light We Choose Not to See

“It is a dark world…”, the professor typed, then grumbled at the glare on his computer screen and rose to pull the window shade. “… bleak and precarious…” (Here, his fingers left a smudge of powdered sugar on the keys, residue of the half-eaten doughnut at his elbow.) “…hostile toward continued existence.”

He scrolled up and down the page, sharpening his comments about the brutality of life in a godless universe. His eyes scanned the screen, sensing minute differences in color that his brain resolved into letter shapes and somehow buffered into a sequence of words that reproduced his ideas. His fingers flicked smoothly over the keyboard, their shape changing rapidly and gracefully in a dance that featured an astounding array of muscles and ligaments, bones, joints, and nerve endings, all choreographed by his thoughts — which at this moment focused on the undirected nature of human existence.

“What we call life”, he typed, “is not a story, but a random stream of mechanical and chemical events, including our sensations of…” – the door to his study opened, admitting his young daughter. His irritation at the interruption was balanced by the tenderness between them. She loved him, and he scooped her into his arms and promised to come to dinner in a minute, then turned back to his computer. “…chemical events, including our sensations of…”, of what? “…of meaning and purpose, which are logically unsupportable, and feelings of personal significance which are fraudulent but compelli…” – here the door opened again.

“Daddy! It’s been a minute. C’mon!” He rose and carried his princess down the hall toward the comforting smell of dinner. There was no bowing of heads before the meal, no one to whom gratitude was due. He ate, mostly listening to his daughter talk with excitement about her day, unmindful of the intricate process by which plants and animals become food, become nourishment and strength and consciousness and life.

After dinner, he returned to his study and wrote about the tribal origins of religion, unaware of the gentle sky that overshadowed his neighborhood, the cool evening air that charged his lungs and brain, the passing of the sun that had filled the house with light and warmth, the thousand little things that gave him strength to refute and comfort to ignore the one toward whom all humble things point.