Saturday, December 22, 2012

I Want to Wish You a Paradoxical Christmas

Feliz Navidad is one of the more popular and cheerful Christmas songs (one of my personal favorites) written and sung by Jose Feliciano in English and part Spanish. In this special season I join with Feliciano’s song to say, “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas”. I wish you this, but I want to wish you something more. Though not as festive and catchy as the song, admitting it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and though it is not a conventional yuletide greeting, I want to wish you a Paradoxical Christmas.

Consider Christmas paradox: on one hand it is an easy narrative, not too complex, a simple story. We often call it The Christmas Story - a story easily read by small children and complicated only by the beauty of the King James Version. The story seems to hover and glide along with effortless flow, like a cup of hot chocolate that’s not too hot to guzzle.

Simple enough, yet at the same time it carries a transcendent weightiness exceeding the plain words of the story. That is to say, the narrative delivers a sense of glory (The Hebrew kabowd, often translated glory, implies weightiness as in splendor or significance). The story is simple and yet it is splendid.

The paradox continues as the story juxtaposes the glorious with the common and every day. The parents in the story have come to Bethlehem merely for the census while wise men from the east come because they have seen his star. They have come to worship. Plain ole shepherds encounter an angel messenger and a heavenly host announcing “good news and tidings of great joy…Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior…” This glorious transaction is not given to magistrates, governors or king’s men, but to ordinary shepherds.

It is a story of livestock, stable and feeding troth - it is a story of treasure; gold, frankincense and myrrh. The earthly and the heavenly, the ordinary and the divine, the common and the holy…It is the revelation of God, heaven breaking in upon earth, eternity breaking in on time. Mortal man was given a glimpse into the other side while the temple veil that would be torn in two some thirty-three years later was already beginning to show a tear.

Some would eventually call this event Jesus’ birthday. “Happy Birthday Jesus” they glibly say. But perhaps in this they confuse (if not abuse), the paradox. Rather than juxtaposing the common and divine, as does the biblical narrative, they make the divine common which is, by definition, to profane.

This advent is something much more than a birthday and a baby. This is an event some still say never happened – that it could not happen – it is just too glorious to have happened. It was not a birthday so much as the moment of incarnation, a pivot point in history when the eternal Creator God (the Holy Other) is enfleshed, takes on humanity - the separated One suddenly becomes close.

A simple story - baby Jesus baby born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger - a story we can wrap our minds around, and yet a story that defies our absolute understanding. Incarnation of the Divine just isn’t a simple thing. It is paradox.

It may seem like a child’s story – something confined to fairytale books with other enchanted fables, myths and legends. But this story will not stay in a book or be confined to mere words. This story lives, breath off the page and into life. As heaven broke into earth some two thousand years ago, the Christmas story yet lives today. A simple story, but the glory it carries is undeniable.

A spirit accompanies the story that words and concepts cannot completely convey.  To do justice to the story requires an appeal to music and the other arts. Art can transcend words and the conceptual and we need this to tell this story. That is why some of the most majestic music in the world is Christmas music. Art is required to express the wonder of Christmas.

Words are insufficient, so Christmas is expressed with decorated trees, lights, ornamental pieces, golden angels, stars, tinsel and other things that sparkle, catch and divide light. We celebrate with gatherings, ceremony, festival, parade, dinner parties, dramatic presentations and gifts. Gift-giving is off the charts during the Christmas season.

 And note that it is a season. We do not observe a mere Christmas Day for it has claimed for itself a season, and so we make reference to Christmastime. One day cannot contain the glory, so it is not just a day of gift giving, but a time and a season for giving - a season of parties, pageant and parade. Words are not enough and neither is one day. It requires ornamentation, decoration, scents, lighted candles and music for an entire season.

The first Christmas was a great joy to some, a threat/offense to others and surprise to all. The same is true today. Some disparage the surrounding traditions of Christmas, but the entourage of customs that accompany and escort the season forward is testimony to the greatness of the holiday. The sacraments of Christmas are many. Someone say pumpkin pie, cookies and candy are not what Christmas is about. True, but the observance of Christmastime deserves these things and more.

Gift giving is not what Christmas is about, and yet gift giving is what Christmas is about. “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given” (Isa 9:6). So here’s wishing you a Paradoxical Christmas!

Enjoy the video. Feliz Navidad!

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