Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Christmas Peace And Old Curtains

For the warm white lights that are now winding their way around my basement apartment that lies on the border of two cities. For Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, and Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace. For the memory of cheese melting on crackers in the oven on a cold Christmas Eve night. For these things and more, thank you.

Christmas peace, be born in me today. Christmas peace and new truth, be born in me this yuletide.

There are not many things in life that are as soothing and warming to me as those things that I will enjoy during the next month or so. The abundance of beautifully decorated trees inside department stores, some featuring traditional Christmas colours of red and emerald green, and other trees that are dressed with bulbs of blue and white or silver and gold. The storefront window displays, adorned with faux - and sometimes real – frosting, or paintings of plump snowmen sipping on steaming cups of cocoa, or perhaps children screaming in delight as they ride a toboggan down a steep blinding white hill. There’s the music that we will be hearing everywhere before long. Nat King Cole smoothly singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” Sinatra crooning out “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” and of course, the irreplaceable Bing imparting the wish that “all our Christmases be white.” And there’s the extra smiles that are on the faces of loved ones and strangers alike.

All of these can serve to further brighten an already happy day, or they can be a kind of salve during tumultuous times.

There is also something comforting in the continuity of it all. As so much changes around us throughout the year, still, every Christmas season the bejeweled trees will be there, along with the line-ups of kids waiting to see Santa Claus in the mall while their parents use their free hand to hold onto a steaming cup of hot apple cider. There are the volunteers standing beside the Salvation Army kettles. And, as always, we will turn on our television sets and there Rudolph will be making a pact with his dentist-elf friend to be “independent together,” as they venture out into the cold unknown.
At Christmastime we are also re-introduced, through carols, movies, and church services, to the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem. We are told of how his family traveled there because Joseph came to his census – something that must give hope to beleaguered spouses everywhere.

This was an integral part of my childhood, and indeed right up to my early to mid twenties. Each year at home, in the week or two leading up to Christmas Day, we would tape up the advent calendar to the wall and look forward to opening up a different little square each day, revealing, if I remember correctly, a different Bible verse describing a part of the story of Jesus’ birth. And every year there was the Sunday school program at the small-town church that I attended, where inevitably little boys and girls would dress up as shepherds, or angels, or perhaps camels. There was the lighting of the advent candles on the Sundays preceding Christmas Day, where a family was selected to go up to the front, read a passage from the Bible, and light the candle. I remember doing this as a small boy, getting all decked out in my grey suit and tie, and making my way down the center aisle of the church.

Perhaps my favourite memories of Christmas, besides the presents – what kid wouldn’t say presents – are of Christmas Eve services. If you could stay awake through the at-least-half-hour choir cantatas (a word that almost still gives me the shivers,) you also got to sing a lot of carols, like Angels We Have Heard On High, O Little Town of Bethlehem, or perhaps The First Noel, in itself a nice song even though it tried your patience with all of its 36 or so verses. The end of the service was particularly lovely, when the sanctuary lights were turned down and everyone quietly sang Silent Night, Holy Night as we each lit the thin candles we were handed on the way in to the service. It was a special time.

At the time, the Christian story that I was presented with, of God sending his son to the world to be born of a virgin in order to be the salvation for all the world, it was defining. And though this is no longer the case for me, it is still a part of my story that I cannot and will not forget.

Christmas peace and warm memories, make room at the table for new truth. Along with the space created on the poinsettia-imaged tablecloth for the mashed potatoes, the turkey and the ham, make room for new insights, new thoughts, new understandings. For, as comforting as it is to have the things this time of year that do not change, such as the Miracle on 34th Street, or Yukon Cornelius’s ever-futile search for silver and gold, or Zuzu’s petals, the reality is that time in so many ways does not stand still. We evolve, we change, and as we do, so does our understanding.

There are important values that I was introduced to and heard each year when presented with the Christian Christmas story. Peace, goodwill toward humankind, the glory of humility, the connection between the divine and humanity. But as time marches on, with scientific discovery, an understanding of the context in which the Bible was written, and increasing introduction and appreciation of other deep religious and non-religious traditions, we can no longer claim that Christianity has a trademark on these values. They are broad, human values, and not restricted to one faith tradition. Peace and love are not Christian values, they are human ones. This perspective can lead to an openness and an inclusivity that is desperately needed in our world, here in North America and abroad. Love and peace break down barriers. The need may seem more palpable when we turn on the nightly news and see the conflicts between Christians and Muslims or Israelis and Palestinians, but it is just as important in our North American society, where too often segments of society are left to feel inferior. Women. Immigrants. The gay and lesbian community. The disabled. How can these barriers be broken down? How can these people be welcomed and seen as equally valuable and important members of society, because that is exactly who they are. They are not just minority groups to be “tolerated,” but equally vibrant and wondrous colours within the human kaleidoscope.

I suggest that it can be done through a renewed emphasis and living out of these broad, human values. Peace, love, compassion, goodwill toward humankind. Anything that gets in the way of these things must be discarded. Sometimes the curtain must be drawn in order to let the light shine through, as pretty as those curtains may be, and even though they may have been handed down from your great-great grandma Mabel. They must be drawn. Going further, they very well may need to be replaced entirely because they no longer match the walls of the apartment, or, to withdraw the metaphor, the world’s growing understanding.

A few of the curtains that may have to go in order to clear the way for the light of the “big values” to shine through include, but are not restricted to:

1) The belief that humankind fell from God’s grace because of Adam and Eve, and therefore need something outside of themselves to be “right with God.”

2) The belief that God exclusively revealed him/herself through the birth of Jesus.

3) The belief that one can only be close to the divine if one believes that they are a sinner, that Jesus died as payment for their sins, and that he literally rose from the dead.

3b) Add to this the harmful belief that those who believe otherwise are “lost,” “misguided,” or even worse, destined for eternal hellfire.

These beliefs were constructed during a specific time and in a specific context, and if love, peace and unity are to expand on our earth, we must seem them as just that. Instead of continually expecting those of differing faiths or perspectives to come to Jesus, at least the version that is often presented, we must do a better job of meeting people where they are, with love and a commitment to learning from them. We must live the “big values.” Peace, love, compassion, humility, which if I had to make a good guess was what Jesus had in mind in the first place.

So what to do. Is this the year that I replace the angel on top of my tree with a pretty bow instead? Will I undergo the arduous process of sifting through my iTunes playlist and remove carols such as O Come All Ye Faithful and Away In A Manger? Will I stop talking of when I was a boy reading scripture in church?

No, I will do nothing of the sort. The angel will still shine on the tree-top, the carols will still ring, and I will bring out the small blue bottle of Aqua Velva that passed as frankincense when I was a wise man as a boy in the Sunday school program. These are a part of my life, and I will not abandon them. I will be warmed by these memories. But the curtains are firmly drawn, and I will be open to new understandings.

Christmas peace and new truth, be born in me today.