I wonder if there's anyway to recapture just how weird and peculiar Christmas is? We're so used to it. The religious observers take it for granted and the Winter Solstice crowd keep dreaming of a White one. Christmas trees are everywhere and Christmas carols are heard in our malls and stores, even in early November.
For the struggling believer the challenge is to recover the shock of it all. Christmas for me (given the state of the world) is a struggle to forge a new and more generous and inclusive "We." Who are we? I treasure the story of the early rabbis arguing about which was the most important text in Scripture. Rabbi Akiba said the greatest principle of Torah is found in Leviticus: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Only one of the rabbis challenged this. He argued that the simple words "This is the role of Adam's descendants"
were more important because they revealed the unity of the entire human race. The human race is one. This doesn't mean differences and divisions don't exist but they shouldn't be considered the last word. Timothy Garton Ash, social commentator, puts it well: "The multiculturalist literature, with its tendency to pigeonhole people by culture, often fails to acknowledge the sheer diversity of this increasingly mixed-up world. More than ever, that must include the diversity to be found in a single human skin, mind and heart" (See Timothy Garton Ash in NYRB, Nov. 22, 2012, "Freedom and Diversity: A Liberal Pentagram for Living Together", pp 33 ff). This mixed-up world challenges us to get in touch with the oddness of Christianity -- its weirdness, its frightening yet wondrous inclusion, its proclamation that everyone matters in the sight of God and is the very image of God. It's shocking. Christians have often failed and failed miserably to live into this mystery -- and we continue to fail. But it's a mystery, nevertheless, that should and could appeal to all people of good will.
How do we cross the boundary into something deeper and truly wonderful? We cut out a lot of living when we play it safe, or when we too easily dismiss the stories, rendered unchallenging by familiarity. Hearing the old carols once again remind me of a deep truth too easy to forget. "In this poor world, only love can be entrusted with the truth"
(Bruce Robinson, "The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman").
So this Christmas I'm looking for the radically new, an introduction to the subversive nature of Christianity, to its shocking weirdness. The subversive aspect is focused in the almost pathetic modesty of the revelation -- in Bethlehem of all places, a no place. Jesus is coming and he's coming to Burbank or the Bronx! Nothing wrong with either but not the place you might expect.
Roman Catholic theologian Andrew Greeley puts the outrageousness of it all very well: "Indeed I often think that maybe half our heritage is transmitted to children around the crib at Christmas time -- and especially in the wonderfully mysterious explanation of the Incarnation to little kids that Mary is God's mommy." How weird can you get? Mary is God's mommy! Really! We need stories and myths to help us find meaning and purpose. C. G. Jung tells us that anyone "who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it, like one uprooted, has no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet of contemporary human society. This plaything of his reason never grips his vitals."
Mary is God's mommy! No, I haven't gone off my head. It's a way of saying that being here on the planet and struggling to be human is very odd. I simply believe that there is a profound truth here -- a profound truth about ourselves. And it comes home to us when we look at Mary and her Baby. If we look with the eyes of love we find ourselves at a place of unraveling, unweaving. We cross a boundary into another world -- or better, another way of looking at this world.
I don't know about you, but I need pictures and stories, which bring me to the boundary where I meet people unlike myself who are also on a boundary-crossing journey. I need to hear different and wonderful stories about the journey. We don't have to judge each other. You're story is peculiar to you and is different from mine but you are my companion.
What do we have in common -- the motley crowd that show up in our churches at Christmas? We share a common vulnerability in that we're not always sure that we're in the right place at the right time. Yet we have an instinct that the most fruitful place for crossing the boundary is (as Rowan Williams puts it) "in those areas of our life where we feel at sea, not understanding, not succeeding." God is with us where we feel at sea, where we are out of our depth and are far from being a success. We cross the boundary into our deeper selves when we really see that Mary is God's mommy. We love babies because a baby is a sign of possibility. We look at a new-born baby and think -- even if only for a moment -- that there is a chance that the human race might make it after all.
Anne Lamott, in her "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith," writes of the shocking weirdness of it all:
"I don't know much about God; only that He or She is love, and is not American, or male. I do love Jesus, and I'm nuts about his mother ... You're not supposed to love Mary so much, if you're not Catholic, but I do. I wear a picture of her inside a gold oval frame, on a thin gold chain. Her arms outstretched in blessing look as if she has pulled the orange lining out of her blue robes to show everyone that there's nothing hidden inside, no tricks up her sleeve ... She doesn't look like she has missed many meals, either, not the usual anorexic piety. She looks like Myrna Loy. I wear Mary for two reasons: Because she helps me remember the song 'Let It Be.' And because I used to pray to her as if she were my mother when I was coming down off cocaine ... When I used to lie in the dark grinding my teeth, utterly whipped, surrender came, and then the miracle, motherly kindness toward my own screwed-up self."
Christmas is for those who haven't got it together. It's for the shipwrecked and screwed-up. It's shocking. It's weird. It's Christmas!