Foundations of Transformation: Christmas

In an attempt to reinforce the idea that Christmas provides a  foundation for transformation,  I bring together two pieces, an essay by Michael Gerson and a poem by Daniel Berrigan.

Michael Gerson is a twice weekly editorial columnist for the Washington Post. In his Christmas column from December 2009 entitled The Grandest Myth, The Greatest Hope, Gerson points to the message of Christmas as nothing less than the most important “truth” of all time. Gerson, is a professing Christian,and I appreciate that he allows for honest doubt. His understanding of the Christmas story as myth, (Gerson seems to be using  “myth”  in the broadest most neutral sense) recognizes that millions of people of faith stake their lives upon the hope that Christ gives “cosmic importance (to) common lives”. His argument is similar to Pascal’s Wager: That if the Christian message holds true, the “payoff” is so great that it is better to believe than not to believe. As Gerson concludes  “if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself”.

In Advent Credo, Daniel Berrigan, the American Catholic priest, notorious peace activist, and poet, powerfully reinforces that same central Christmas message of transformation in “Jesus Christ— the life of the world.”

Jesus’ humble beginnings illustrate how God has shared in poverty, and that the starting point for transformation lies in identifying with the poor and the disadvantaged. Indeed, God identifying with the poor and disadvantaged as a central message of Christmas, provides millions with the foundation of how they want to live their lives and how I want to live mine.

The Grandest Myth, the Greatest Hope

For me, Christmas brings images of boxes, not wrapped but valued. At the end of a rural road in Kericho, Kenya, there is a compound overrun by playing children. Sister Placida — a nun whose frenetic temperament belies her name — raises AIDS orphans. It is a cheerful place but careful about preserving difficult memories. Sister Placida shows an album of pictures and detailed descriptions of people she has cared for who died from AIDS. The children keep memory boxes containing photos and mementos of their deceased parents. These acts of preservation seem a kind of desperate protest — that lives should matter to someone, even when they are short and tragic.

Any thinking visitor is confronted with a terrible prospect. Perhaps the protests are pointless. Some might consider these surplus lives. The dead are remembered sadly, then faintly, then not at all. Generations of the poor briefly walk the Earth, then become it — living and dying under cold, indifferent stars.

But Christmas carries a different message. A child of questionable parentage, born into humble circumstances, in a provincial backwater, begins a short life that ends in an execution. Yet it is somehow the hinge of history. Christmas tilts the universe toward the humble. It asserts that every child, in every stable, deserves angel choirs and the tribute of kings. It means that no life is too minor to matter; that the stars are warm and sheltering; that desperate prayers are heard and heeded; that every quiet, unnoticed death disturbs the cosmos; that memory boxes filled by children hold relics of eternity.

It may, of course, not be true. I’ll own up to occasional doubt. We have learned to be suspicious of our deepest longings. It is a human tendency to project our hopes into the universe, to create myths that fill a need for meaning. Christmas is the grandest of myths. But it may be pie in the sky.

It was C.S. Lewis, however, who responded: “We are afraid of the jeer about ‘pie in the sky.’ … But either there is ‘pie in the sky’ or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced.” I also admit to doubt about my doubts. Precluding a hope, just because we hope for it, is not rationality, it is a prejudice. It is also a human tendency to hug our despair.

Perhaps our deepest desires exist for a reason — because they are meant to be fulfilled. Perhaps we are not tortured by our hopes, but led by them. Perhaps, as Lewis insisted, this story is a “true myth” — the myth to which all other myths point.

Reassurance about the cosmic importance of common lives — including our own — comes in many forms and in many faiths. In various noble traditions, God visits prophets and sages with wisdom and comfort. But in the faith of Christmas, God just visits. A father is appalled. A mother hides a miracle in shame. A son eventually experiences disappointment, betrayal and mortality. Yet something extraordinary takes place.

“By normal human standards,” says theologian J.B. Phillips, “this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire. It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history.”

Being astonishing, of course, does not make something true. The message of Christmas seems scandalously unlikely to us, just as it did to sophisticated Romans at the time. But if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself. If it is true, hope and memory do not end in a gash of Earth. God, let it be true.

Advent Credo by Daniel Berrigan

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

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