But as far as I'm concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman - sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing ham. When we came out of the church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. And I thought about the Angel of the Lord - Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us everywhere: 'Hey! Unto you a child is born!'
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Barbara Robinson
Here is how this book begins:
The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse.
These truly nasty kids bully their way into the lead roles in a church Christmas pageant because they want free hot chocolate and cookies, and by the end of the book, their unexpected Christmas spirit had me in tears.
What can I say? I'm such a sucker for a redemption story. Whether it's Scrooge, the Herdmans, George Bailey, the Grinch, little Susan Walker - or me, I just can't resist the story of someone who once was blind, but now they see.
The other day, I was reading about bodhichitta -- roughly, "awakened heart." It's a Buddhist teaching about embracing the pain of our human condition in order to learn compassion, and it struck such a chord with me.
It's a very un-American approach, don't you think? In this shiny, gaudy land where we live, we spend so much time gathering trophies like houses, cars, job titles (and yes, page views) to reassure ourselves of our worth. At the root of it all is such enormous, unspeakable fear. "If I can only have this, I'll be okay no matter what."
So why is that the more we get, the emptier we seem to feel?
The lesson of Bodhichitta is that something has to crack us open to let the light in. The Universe will use whatever it takes until we finally understand what part of us has always known: That we are One in a vast, shimmering sea. That love really is all you need.
It's what every single ancient faith and mystical tradition teaches, and yet we write it off as a bumper sticker.
Yes, the world is a mess, but we still have boundless opportunities for compassion. Forgive an enemy, turn a cheek. Reach out to someone in pain. Allow yourself to be "wrong" so someone else can be "right." (Maybe they need it more than you do.)
Of course, it's easier said than done when we keep stumbling over our own egos. Like the other day, when I asked my readers for donations because my computer is on its last legs. I complained to my friend Maya: "I only got one contribution," I said. "That really hurt my feelings."
"Well, yes," Maya said. "But it was for $400, and it was enough to buy you a new computer. You got exactly what you needed. Do it justice with your gratitude for Providence, lest the universe thinks you don't want it anymore."
(Did I mention she's very wise for such a young sprout? I am so grateful for the collective love and wisdom of my friends, even when it occasionally appears otherwise.)
So this is what I wish for my friends, both "real" and virtual, this Christmas: That you get at least a taste of bodhichitta, and that you finally get to refresh your toes in that shimmering sea that connects us all. That you fly above the despair -- and catch a good, strong wind that keeps you aloft.
Christmas is that Spirit which transforms and you don't have to belong to anything but the human race to let it work its magic. It might have been a different day honored by so many of the human race as the time to transcend our pain and fear, to reach out to each other, but this seems to be the one. So celebrate it.
Some very wise people manage to tap into that compassionate Spirit the rest of the year, while the rest of us keep our hearts "safe" behind concrete and razor wire. Silly, really -- because a heart not opened regularly shrivels up, becomes hard and small. (Like the Grinch.)
Remember, a broken heart is much better than one that's never used at all. That broken place is where bodhichitta grows.
We have these messy lives that are far from perfect. Sometimes we go through hard times that seem to never end, and we always seem to get it wrong. And yet.
And yet, there's hope. Every single year, Ebenezer Scrooge opens his heart. Every year, George Bailey gets a glimmer of understanding about what a very large part is played out in very small ways, and Clarence gets his wings. A wounded little girl who didn't dare let herself believe in Santa Claus learns faith in each other isn't rational, and Linus helps us see that spiritual yearning at the real heart of Christmas.
We're here. We're alive. Love each other, if you dare. Be brave with your hearts. Merry, merry Christmas.
Hey! Unto you a child is born!
(Note: If this seems familiar, it's because it appeared in a slightly different form last year.)