On keeping Christmas

Now is not the time to let down your guard. The Grinch who stole into town on Christmas Eve to steal Christmas was not the real threat. He was only a diversion. And he turned out to be a pretty ineffective one. It’s the other Grinch who is the real threat. You’ll remember that the first Grinch

. . . HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same! . . .
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!” . . .
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!”

After that Grinch’s heart grew enough, he put all the gifts and decorations and food back in place and joined in the feast. And we’re so glad he had a change of heart and finally celebrated Christmas, we don’t notice the other Grinch who sidles in the next evening and absconds with the whole affair.

You won’t see the other Grinch, of course, only the evidence that he’s been here: the Christmas trees cast to the curb as early as December 26; the sudden disappearance of Christmas music from the radio playlists; the almost-as-sudden disappearance of the spirit of the season from the faces of workers going back to work; the growing awareness that the day’s news is still full of hunger and homelessness and shootings, of a world in shambles, of communities in chaos, of a great democracy at risk of going down the toilet.

And the words of the song “Where Are You Christmas,” by Faith Hill, come wafting in from the shadows:

Where are you Christmas?
Why can’t I find you?
Why have you gone away?
Where is the laughter
You used to bring me?
Why can’t I hear music play?
My world is changing,
I’m rearranging.
Does that mean Christmas changes too?

Christmas doesn’t change, of course. We just lose sight of it as we give our attention to other things. We can celebrate Christmas only so long before we’ve got to turn to the work of life, and to the work of Christmas if we’re going to keep it alive. Howard Thurman, the great American theologian and civil rights leader, wrote about that work in the post-Christmas season. Here’s an updated version of what he wrote:

When the carols have been stilled,
When the star-topped tree is taken down,
When family and friends are gone home,
When we are back to our schedules,
The work of Christmas begins:
To welcome the refugee,
To heal a broken planet,
To feed the hungry,
To build bridges of trust, not walls of fear,
To share our gifts,
To seek justice and peace for all people,
To bring Christ’s light to the world.

How do we do those things? How do I do them? I don’t know exactly, today, but I’m determined to try and discover how. And I think I’ve got three clues about how to do it.

First, we’ve got to greet Incarnation by turning toward God’s presence all around us today, not only in an infant born two millennia ago. “Open your eyes and there it is,” St. Paul wrote to the Romans! “By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of [God’s] divine being” (Rom. 1:19-20 MSG). To keep Christmas, we need to look past the surface of all that’s around us so we might catch a fleeting glimpse of a hidden holiness.

Second, as we look more deeply into creation to see the mystery of God’s presence, we must also look more deeply into ourselves. The great German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “Here in time we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and unceasingly bears in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature. What does it avail me that the birth is always happening, if it does not happen to me? That it should happen in me is what matters.” Today some new incarnation of God is being born in you, and if we are to keep Christmas, we must give our fullest attention to that new birth.

Finally, we must look to our neighbor, our unlovable neighbor, the enemy we want to avoid, the one whose burden is to carry the shadow that lurks in our own hearts. If we are to learn to love the Christ child, we must learn to love the Christ who comes in the form of the beggar; who comes disguised as the homeless one in ragged clothes, asking for help; who appears as the refugee, fleeing death itself; who comes as the helpless one who needs help from us. Only then will we be able to celebrate God’s puzzling and unlikely peace on earth, the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that is born anew today in the Prince of Peace.

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