In those long ago days of Christmas innocence when it always snowed gently in a starry and windless night, my parents would hustle my sisters and me into the back seat of the car, and we would drive slowly, snow crunching under the frozen tires, into the neighborhoods of the rich to see the lights.
The lights were the decorations that people put up on the outside of their houses and winter lawns. Multicolored lights would be strung over an entire house, etching door frames and windows, wrapped round into wreaths and bows. In the frozen front yard there were statues as large as small children. They were usually a mix of the “Night Before Christmas” and the “Crib”—reindeer and wise men, sleighs and shepherds, elves and Mary, angels and carolers, Santa Claus and Baby Jesus. Occasionally the stiff, on-guard soldiers from the “Nutcracker Suite” would make an appearance. All were lit up so that night passengers in slow moving cars could gawk through frosted windows and say, “Look at that one!”
But it was not these elaborate scenes that first brought the truth of Christmas home to me. It was my home, seen in a new way.
Light in the midst of darkness
One Christmas when we returned from our trip to see the lights, I pushed out the back seat, straightened up, and saw our house. We lived in a two flat. My grandparents lived on the first floor, and since they usually went to bed around 9 (a custom I have recently begun to envy), their flat was dark. Our flat on the second floor was also dark—except for the Christmas tree.
The tree was strung with lights, and their soft glow could be seen through the upper window. The outer darkness was all around, yet the tree shone in the darkness. There was no razzle-dazzle, no blinking on and off, no glitz—just a steady shining; a simple juxtaposition of light and darkness. Its beauty drew me.
I ran up the stairs. My parents had already unlocked the door and turned on the house lights. I sat in a chair and stayed with the tree. The attraction of the tree continued for a while and then began to recede. Soon the practical took over. I noticed some tinsel that needed to be smoothed and rehung. As I tinkered with it, whatever was left of the tree’s radiance dimmed, and then, abruptly, the revelation ceased. Just a pine tree shedding needles on the rug.
It was only when I was older that I knew in a murky mental way what my child’s heart had intuited. Christmas tries to point to an inner light, a tree of lights inside the house of our being, and invites people to come close and ponder its beauty. We notice this light because it is contrasted with an outer darkness. And it defies the darkness, refusing to allow the outer world to dictate the terms of existence. In theological language, people have an inner reality that transcends the outer world and it is capable of shining forth even in the darkest of situations. “In him was life and the life was the light of people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4–5).
Of course, our awareness of this truth is fleeting. We return to ordinary consciousness. We smooth the tinsel and vacuum the needles.
Greenness in the midst of barrenness
The Cherokees have a short creation story that encourages the same Christmas insight. The story is “Why Some Trees Are Evergreen.”
When the plants and trees were first made, the Great Mystery gave a gift to each species. But first he set up a contest to determine which gift would be most useful to whom.
“I want you to stay awake and keep watch over the earth for seven nights,” he told them.
The young trees and plants were so excited to be trusted with such an important job that the first night they did not find it difficult to stay awake. However, the second night was not so easy, and just before dawn a few fell asleep. On the third night the trees and plants whispered among themselves in the wind trying to keep from dropping off, but it was too much work for some of them. Even more fell asleep on the fourth night.
By the time the seventh night came, the only trees and plants still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly, and the laurel.
“What wonderful endurance you have,” exclaimed the Great Mystery. “You shall be given the gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the seeming dead of winter, your brother and sister creatures will find life protected in your branches.”
Ever since then all the other trees and plants lose their leaves and sleep all winter while the evergreens stay awake.
This tale does not use the symbols of light and darkness. It talks about greenness in the midst of barrenness and associates this greenness with the ability to stay awake. “Staying awake” is standard code in spiritual literature. It means remaining aware of our life-giving connection to divine reality, even when inner and outer forces militate against it. Just as the light in the darkness reminds us of this truth, so does the green-leafed tree in the leafless forest.
Love in the midst of rejection
The major Christian symbols of Christmas also use contrast to emphasize the invulnerability of our inner transcendent relationship to God. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7). In one densely symbolic sentence, Saint Luke brings out the contrast of love in the midst of rejection. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes—a symbol that he is a loved child. He is laid in a manger, a feeding trough—a symbol that he is meant to be food for the world. These two symbols point to the reality of self-giving love, the essence of God, and the identity and mission of all those connected to God.
Yet this love is surrounded by rejection—there is no room for him at the inn. This exclusion at his birth is a harbinger of his exclusion by the religious and political elite of his time. He will meet with violent opposition and eventually be put to death. Yet, as the whole gospel testifies, this rejection will not undercut the truth of who he is. He is the beloved Son of God on a mission of communicating divine life to people. This truth is seen most clearly in the premier moment of violent rejection—his death on the cross. These future events are hinted at in the interconnected symbols of swaddling clothes, manger, and no room at the inn. These symbols capture the truth of a loved child in a world of rejection.
A defiant Christmas
The truth of Christmas emerges in imaginative contrasts. Perhaps the best way to view these contrasts is in terms of inner and outer realities. No matter how severe the outer world is—darkness, barrenness, rejection—it cannot snuff out the light, wither the greenness, or destroy the love. Although we do not always reflect on it, there is an edge to Christmas, an in-your-face attitude. Author G. K. Chesterton put it simply and well, “A religion that defies the world should have a feast that defies the weather.”
If I ever return to the custom of sending Christmas cards, the cover will be a picture of a light shining in the darkness or an evergreen in the midst of a barren forest or a laughing child in a ramshackle stable. Inside, the greeting will be straightforward, “Have a defiant Christmas.”
Of course, I really do not want people to have a defiant Christmas. I want them to have a harmonious Christmas. I want the inner and outer world to be in sync. Light inside and out, greenness inside and out, love inside and out. In other words, I wish people the full peace of Christmas—good enough health, good enough finances, good enough relationships, and a good enough stable, nonviolent society and world. As the lapel button calling for the Second Coming from the ’60s put it, “Parousia Now!” Idealistic as it is, that’s what I want.
But that is not what we always get. Christmas arrives to find our health precarious, our careers, jobs, or vocations under stress, our finances dipping badly, our relationships in need of repair, and our society and world slightly insane. How can we celebrate Christmas in situations like these? Isn’t the only realistic response anxiety and gloom?
When the outer world is darkness, barrenness, and rejection, Christmas is a lesson in bringing forth and responding to the inner world of light, greenness, and love. Spiritual teachers think that since this inner world is rooted in a transcendent love, it is more powerful than all the attacks that emerge out of both our finitude and sinfulness. “I have said this that you might have peace in me. In the world you have tribulations, but cheer up, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Christmas cheer, when it is modeled on this passage from Saint John, engenders in us a gentle defiance to the tribulations of the world. Gentle defiance is not on the standard list of Christian virtues, but it is the Christmas gift that we all need to unwrap at one December or another.
How do we open this gift of inner light, greenness, and love? How do we get in touch with it? How do we allow it to flow into our lives?
There are some clues in the characters that Christians meditate on in the Advent-Christmas season. Gabriel, Mary, and John the Baptist give hints on how to have a defiant Christmas.
The clue of Gabriel
There is no shortage of angels in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. In Matthew’s story they appear in dreams and give crucial advice to Joseph and the Magi. Luke has angels announce the Good News of the birth of Christ to the shepherds. But the prominent angel who appears to both Zachary and Mary is Gabriel (whose name means the “might of God”). Gabriel’s message is complex and different for both Zachary and Mary, but he has a similar piece of advice for both of them: “Do not be afraid.” (A command that spurred author Madeleine L’Engle to comment, “It gives you some idea of what he looked like.”)
It also gives us some idea of how humans relate to the deeper spaces in them where angels visit. We know we have fears. We fear the loss of health, work, relationships, finances, and so on. However, we may not be aware that we are afraid of the transcendent love that grounds our true selves. The words of Gabriel that trigger Mary’s fear are, “Hail, O highly favored one. The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). It is not the fearsome visage of the angel that makes Mary afraid. It is his greeting, his uncovering of the loved self that is on a mission from God. But why should this cause fear?
We are used to identifying ourselves in more modest ways—by our genes, job, roles, psychic makeup, and relationships. “I am the daughter of Ralph and Anna, and I work in health care and am dating Frank. I’m shy but this year I am going to become more assertive.” Everyone is able to draw a similar, no-nonsense portrait of themselves. However, the spiritual identity has been left out of this ego sketch. This spiritual identity is of a different caliber, and its assessment is far from moderate. It is the immoderation that makes us afraid.
We are highly favored ones on a mission from God. No matter how we protest or place obstacles in the path of what God wants (and we will), the angel will out argue us and get us on our way. God’s evaluation overcomes our resistance. Quite simply, divine love is not put off by our allegiance to partial and negative aspects of our personalities and situations. It seems that God thinks that baptism works. We are children of divine love as well as products of biological evolution and cultural alienation. So the angel chooses to address this baptismal identity that we seldom take seriously. This greeting drives us well beyond our comfort zone. Naturally we are afraid.
But how do we become unafraid? Only over long years and after much meditation.
But there is one realization that may help. When we hear Gabriel’s greeting of love and mission, we may think he is saluting the ego, the “me” I look at when I look at myself—the strange mix of boastings, rationalizations, and repressed inadequacies. How can we believe this is “O highly favored one” when it is so obviously in need of redemption? The real address should be, “Hail, O screwed up one!” Gabriel has made a mistake and knocked on the wrong door.
Gabriel has knocked on the right door, but he is talking to someone we seldom identify with. He is addressing our deeper selves—not the me we look at but the looker; not the me that is known but the me that knows. This deeper self coexists with the ego and relates to its powers, imperfections, and alienations and continually shapes the ego as its vehicle of expression in the world. And it is this self that Gabriel wants to awaken, for it is this self that is grounded in divine love and is the servant of divine intentions. Faced with Gabriel’s proclamation of love and mission, do not protest, “You do not know me.” Take the angel seriously and say, “I do not know myself.” The clue of Gabriel is to let go of our fear and entertain the possibility that we may be more and better than we know.
The clue of Mary
At first glance there is an interesting inconsistency in Luke’s infancy narrative. When Gabriel appears to Zachary and tells him that he is soon to be a father, Zachary responds, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Gabriel is not happy with this and reminds Zachary who he is talking to. “I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you and bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19). (A free paraphrase would be: “Let’s get things straight. I represent the power of God, and I’m on a mission to tell you what God is doing. And your only reaction is to doubt if it can happen?”) Zachary is then silenced until the birth he did not think could happen has come about.
When Gabriel tells Mary she is to become the mother of the Son of the Most High, she says something very similar to Zachary, “How can this be, since I know not man?” (Luke 1:34). Is she silenced for this questioning? No way. She is given an explanation (a mystical explanation, but still an explanation), “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). Both Zachary and Mary have questions about the possibility of what the angel has predicted. How is it that Zachary is silenced and Mary is given an explanation?
But a closer look at the conversation between Mary and Gabriel reveals that Mary’s question is her second response to the angel’s Good News. Her first response is to be troubled and to consider what the greeting meant. Mary is a ponderer of what she does not immediately understand. Zachary’s doubt effectively dismisses the angel’s message; Mary entertains his troublesome words. By the time she asks her question, it is not to doubt the message but to figure out what she must do to cooperate with the message.
Saint Luke stresses Mary’s pondering. When the shepherds make known what the angel told them and the child they found, “all who heard it were amazed” (Luke 2:18). But not Mary. “She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). After the episode of losing and finding the boy Jesus in the Temple, Saint Luke tells us, “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). Later in the gospel we are told that the good soil that yields a hundredfold are those “who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit in patience” (Luke 8:15). Mary lives between the dismissal of Zachary and the amazement of the crowds. She ponders, and that is the clue she gives us to the mystery of Christmas.
But what are we to ponder? Exactly what Mary pondered—the people and events that are near. Everyone has his or her own cast of characters—parents, spouses, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers. Everyone is surrounded and inundated by sights, smells, sounds, touches, and tastes. This overstimulation often becomes too much for people. They yearn for the dull days of January.
The trick is to learn to ponder in the midst of the plenitude. When we receive the richness and variety of Christmas into an open heart, a revelation comes about. We begin to sense the spirit that suffuses the flesh. Everything becomes sacrament—the visibility of an invisible grace. The original Christmas was about spirit becoming flesh—“God becoming human.” Every Christmas since then is about cherishing flesh until the shy spirit emerges. When the spirit-grounding of life shines through its surface, we know that creation and its Creator are bound together in love. We know all that passes in this world of time is held everlastingly in this Eternal Now. We know that Mary pondered to penetrate the depth of reality. And if we follow her clue, we will know why she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46–47).
The clue of John the Baptist
John the Baptist lived in the desert, wore rough clothing, and ate locusts. These are certainly symbols, but even so, this man is no wimp. He is a denouncer of kings, a sayer of hard words, a believer in judgment, a preacher of repentance. It has been joked that even on the platter his head was shouting a prophetic tirade. In most people John inspires respect and fear. Yet I find him a poignant character, and it is this poignancy that is his clue.
John waited for one to come. The one he waited for had an ax in his hand and would chop down the tree that bore no fruit. He had a winnowing fan in his hand, and he would separate the chaff and the wheat. He was the “wrath to come.” The only hope of people was to repent and, possibly, be spared.
But Jesus arrived, and he was not exactly what John had in mind. So from prison John sent his disciples with his own pressing question, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:19). Jesus answers empirically, telling the disciples to tell John what they see and hear. “The blind see, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear the good news” (Luke 7:22). These are not John’s favorite images of judgment and division but are images of transformation, of reclaiming all that is broken and alienated. That is why Jesus’ last line to John’s disciples is, “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized in me” (Luke 7:23). The John of judgment may be scandalized by the Jesus of transformation.
We are not told explicitly whether John was scandalized by Jesus. But we might surmise that a different dynamic took place. On one level John’s expectations were not met, but on another level they were fulfilled and surpassed. In spiritual teaching there is a distinction between desire and hope. Desire is the projection of what we want in the future. Hope is the arrival of something we did not expect, but once it comes, we recognize that it was always the deepest yearning of our hearts. Could that be what happened to John the Baptist?
What is the deepest yearning of John’s heart and, in fact, all our hearts? I suspect it is for an infusion of spirit, to be united with the animating spirit of the world. We think this spirit will come in a certain form: We identify it with a certain shape. We know what we want, and, if Christmas is to be a success, we had better get it. Yet if we stay stuck on our desires, we just may miss our hope. What we think we need is always something specific—a person has to show up and say exactly what we want to hear, an object has to be obtained, a situation has to work out as we have imagined it. Our mind clings to these desires and in the process blinds us to other possibilities.
John the Baptist waited for a man with an ax. What arrived was a seed scatterer. He waited for someone with a winnowing fan, and along came a bridegroom breaking bread. John thought the spirit would take the form of judgment. Instead, judgment became the prelude to healing, and the fullness of spirit was shown in the resurrection of all things mangled and broken. John’s greatness and his clue is that he was able to let go of the forms he desired and discern the spirit in forms he never dreamed of. If we demand the spirit arrive in the ways we expect, we may go unvisited this Christmas. But if we refuse to be scandalized by the stubbornness of the spirit to blow where it will, it may arrive in our lives in what, at first glance, will surely be a disguise. But, upon pondering, it will be our heart’s hope and our souls will be awakened. Ask John the Baptist.
The path to defiance
The Christmas season is upon us. Is everything perfect? If so, the message is light, greenness, and love. If not, the message will have to be light in the midst of darkness, greenness in the midst of barrenness, love in the midst of rejection. This is the gentle defiance of the spirit.
The way to this spirit is both arduous and simple. We have to move beyond the comfortable reduction that we are merely genetic and social products and recognize we are also children of God. We have to ponder the surface of life until its spiritual depth is manifested and open to spirit in whatever form it takes—for it will often take a form we do not suspect. These general strategies, culled from the infancy narratives of the birth of Jesus Christ, will awaken the gentle spirit in us, a spirit that defies the world.
Perhaps the greeting card that symbolizes a defiant Christmas has already been written. Fra Giovanni put it this way:
I salute you!
There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy.
And so at this Christmastime, I greet you with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.