Saturday, December 31, 2011

Jesus, Yule and Life-Renewal

Reflections for the 12 Days of Christmas: 4

As we unpacked our trove of Christmas ornaments and placed them, one by one, on the fresh-cut Tree, special moments and people from the past came up from memory to meet me.

This half-eggshell bird’s nest ornament was the gift of a parishioner who crafted her own ornaments as gifts each year. That dachshund in the red Volkswagen with the Christmas tree on top was one of the many annual ornament gifts my wife’s mother began to give annually to her children as they started their own homes. The tiny red bell—broken this year, alas—was “my” childhood ornament to hang on the tree even as a toddler, and had come to me through my mother from her own childhood in rural Tennessee. We have a treasury of ornaments which turn our Christmas tree into a rich tapestry of relationships and remembrances.

No Puritan simplicity desired.....

My appreciation was heightened this year by mild annoyance at a pre-Christmas blog by a Presbyterian minister proudly announcing that “as for me and my house we will abstain from Christmas.” So corrupt, he said, had its commercialization become that there would be no gifts. No Tree. No decorations. Nada. Nothing. How could he give his children gifts when other children in the world were disadvantaged? “How can he send them to school, then,” I wondered, “when so many go uneducated?” In the place of Christmas, they had put to together a “wish list” a bit like John Lennon’s famous “Imagine” when hoped for everything from the abolition of the sex slave trade to world peace.

Couldn’t he have modeled a moderate Christmas, instead? A few gifts and contributions to the causes that serve his “wish list?” Fine. It’s a free country. Do what you wish. But his righteous rant against the “festival” aspects of Christmas—and the wider Mid-Winter Yule Festival which is its seasonal context—only increased my appreciation for being part of a long and deep strand of Christianity that doesn’t shy at adorning fir trees with light and color, enjoying the figgy pudding, rum and all, and relaxing into some general good times in the dark of the year.

Not that my Calvinist dissenter is the first to decry Christmas. The Puritans abstained in pious horror from the clearly pagan roots of the midwinter festivities surrounding the alleged birthday of Jesus. And the patristic Church placed Christmas on the Winter Solstice, hard on the Roman Saturnalia, as a fast day to keep the faithful from frivolity. Only as the power of pagan religion waned (and was suppressed, to be honest) did it become safe to tolerate the blending of the natural human urge to celebrate with lights and food during the cold and dark of the year with the celebration of the Nativity.

Pagan roots, to be sure, but why not?

And a good thing, too, so far as I’m concerned. My spiritual father “was a wandering Aramean,” as the book of Deuteronomy puts it, but the spiritual mother of the mid-winter festival was a European pagan, someone devoted to the rhythms of nature and the more earthy needs of the human soul. The spiritual and psychological genius of the Church Kalendar of feasts and fasts that arose from that covertly interfaith marriage consists in keeping the prophetic witness of the Hebrew tradition in dynamic balance with the nature rooted witness of “earth-based spirituality”.

For me, that glowing Tree in my living room is not only an offering to honor the Babe who carries the “ever-greening” powers of the soul (as Hildegaard of Bingen might put it). Garnished with lights large and small, and in a multitude of creatures represented in the ornaments, it also symbolizes the cosmic Tree of Life itself, that ever-renewing miracle of the life in the universe, where the death of the first stars gives birth the elements that make up everything, including the hands that hung the decorations and the eyes that behold them.

So it’s not hard, at New Year’s, to see it is an entirely apt symbol of the life-renewal, the letting-go of the past and the leaning toward the future, that is also part of the Good News of Christmastide.

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