But the crassness of current society is overwhelming to me and evidenced by the end-of-year holidays running into each other and connected by measures of commerce--how well did Wal-Mart do? Are retail sales up from last year? This materialism is not new, of course, but it is accelerated to the point where it seems there is nothing promoted about Christmas beyond selling. That is, a lot of publicity is given to battles over plastic stuff on Black Friday, but I don't see anything comparable to The Homecoming: A Christmas Story being produced that speaks to us at a higher level.
And beyond the materialism, there seems to be an evil that is bent on the destruction of humankind and the natural world. Corporations run governments and use them to drive populations to starvation. Open-ended wars are waged among elite powers using guns, bombs, robots, radiation, mass-communications, lies, and food, all for the sake of profit and the ability to decide who lives and who dies. This ponderous beast seems to be a hive creature--a collective of sociopathetic minds whose arrogance extends to attempts to engineer the very climate of the world to serve them, rather than abandoning the filthiest and most destructive practices for generating energy.
And so I despair because this is a dark and threatening world. It is a fallen world. How can anyone find "the Christmas spirit" in such a place, at such a time?
As the years have trudged on, it has become harder and harder to reclaim those early, happy associations. Even Charlie Brown had trouble with it. His problem was being so put off by the rampant commercialization of the holiday (even his dog entered a decorations contest) that he could not connect with the "reason for the season" until his friend, Linus, gave him a clue with a reading from the Gospel of Luke.
So I took my cue from Peanuts and considered the Christian origins of Christmas (while respecting that its nonChristian antecedents have their lessons too), hoping that, like Charlie Brown, I could find some inspiration.
Christianity appeared in the ancient world like a struck match flaring in a dark room. Jesus' message of unconditional love from God, loving even our enemies, faith in the spiritual over the material, hope for a redeemed future, and his example of nonviolent action, resonated with people living oppressed and hopeless beneath the boot of a highly material, self-centered, hierarchical tyranny. It was a spark that, in the following centuries, triumphed over that tyranny from which it finally gained acceptance and even promotion, though seldom with sincerity.
The Christian hope is salvation. That is, salvation from evil and death through the mystery of God himself incarnating and offering his human life in sacrifice and propitiation of his own judgment. People find a faith in this that shows them how to live seeking the "kingdom of heaven" inside themselves, rather than living for the material and trying to "gain the whole world." This hope further promises eternal life in bliss beyond this one, removing death's sting.
The picture thus painted is of humanity beset by a lethal malevolence and in desperate need of escaping it. Christian theology calls that malevolence, "sin," "rebellion against God," "Satan," or many other such expressions and supported by much intertwining doctrine. I would call it "industrial civilization's collapse," "unrestrained capitalism," "geoengineering," "genetically modified food," "globalization," or even "peak oil." In all instances, the idea is of a dark place we need to leave.
Christmas says the exit door was opened by the intervention of almighty God into history in the form of an infant. It is a beautiful picture of infinite power incarnating into a finite vessel for the sake of saving entrapped humanity. It stands in contrast to the current perverse economic picture of "infinite growth" in a finite world for the sake of a privileged few and keeping everyone else oppressed. We are in desperate need of the beautiful depiction.
If we take the image of the Christ child's birth as a symbol of hope in our darkest hour, then perhaps we can find some inspiration in contemplating the nativity.
The scene centers on the baby Jesus, lying in soft hay in an animal's feeding trough made bright with Heaven's light. He is haloed with the divinity that empowers the potential of the newborn on a mission for us all. The benevolent power from beyond blesses this incarnation as a parent blesses a child, reaching down from the numinous through a brilliant star's pointed light, touching the infant and illuminating that sacred space. Heavenly beings fly through the cold night and warm it with songs of praise at the wondrous sight below. They are only seen by those with simple faith so they sing to shepherds who live close to the earth, and herald salvation's arrival. Though the simple have found the divine hope first, they are followed by those counted wise and wealthy who have followed the star others ignored, until they found the miraculous and offered gifts. And so hope arrived on the earth.
I will think on this picture of the nativity in my meditations over the holidays, drawing strength from its message of salvation and hope. And doing so without the constraints of doctrine; just pondering the very ideas of what we need most: salvation, hope. Perhaps you can do the same in your prayers, and as you attend mass. Maybe just finding the joy in being with family, communing with them and friends over meals and holiday gatherings, listening to music or watching classic movies, singing, or enjoying a time of peace, will open a conduit of loving kindness that could potentially connect to all humankind.
And looking within, find the Kingdom of Heaven and let it fill you, until you feel the joy that prompts angels to sing. It is a quiet joy that does not originate in physical conditions, but is the steady state of the universe that we can tap into, and is especially accessible at this time. Reach out to it.
I hope your Christmas is blessed and happy, and that you find hope and joy to take into the new year.
Peace be with you.