The holidays: a season of Christmas cards, Hanukkah cards, snail mail cards and internet cards, cards of all sorts through which we reach out to family and friends near and far away, to let them know that we’re thinking about them and that we love them.
And sometimes, in the cards, we include letters. Updates on main events of the past year.
Humorist Bob Schwartz puts his finger on one kind of thing we might see in these holiday letters:
Dear Friends, Family and those others who are somehow lucky enough to receive this Holiday Greeting letter,
This year was a fantastic, spectacular, phenomenal and incredible year for the Schwartz family. Life is so wonderful, so prosperous, so stupendous and astounding that everything is coming up roses and what good would it all be if we didn’t have the opportunity to brag about it with you?
Sometimes, in other words, the holiday letters are all about bragging rights, whose kids are best, whose family and life is shiniest. I’ve read a few real letters like this, and maybe you have too.
On the other hand, there’s the kind of letters which don’t so much brag as stay on the surface of things. After all, how much can you say in a holiday letter? And, really, how much do you want to say? What if tis year you lost your job? What if someone you love got cancer, or you are desperately lonely, or your child has been having a hard time at school? What if?
But this is life. This is our humanity. Shiny and dull. Stuff to brag about, and stuff to grieve. It’s just as William Blake once wrote:
Joy and woe are woven fine,
Clothing for the soul divine:
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
Words that have been in the back of my mind as I’ve been thinking about my holiday letter this year, to you. Here it is:
As I reflect on this past year, what comes up for me most forcefully is what’s on the inside, what’s been moving in my spirit and soul. Chalk that up, I guess, to being a natural introvert.
To say what I need to say, I’m going to draw on a memory of something that happened several years ago, when my family and I were still living in Chicago. It’s about the time Laura, Sophia, and I went downtown to the Kristkindle Mart to do some Christmas shopping.
The Kristkindle Mart features the wares of craftspeople and merchants from Germany and Russia and all sorts of other far flung places. Foods and sweets are also sold, as well as beer and a holiday drink they call glug. A few words about this glug. It’s red wine heated and mixed with spices, goes down like fire, and it feels GOOD. The secret ingredient has got to be brandy or something equally potent. It’s powerful stuff.
So anyhow–I’m wandering around this outdoor faire and the light is starting to fade. I’ve got my hot cup of glug in hand and, despite the Chicago cold, I’m feeling pretty toasty. Laura and Sophia are off looking at a booth somewhere. I hear Christmas music nearby, and eventually I find three men playing “Silent Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and other favorites. I stand there and, in the fading light, enjoy the smiles of the people surrounding the musicians, their red cheeks, the rising cheer.
It’s then that I notice, nearby, the almost life-size manger scene. I wander over to it, not really expecting that it will be any different from any other manger scene I’ve ever run across before. I stand there, looking, and the critical voice in my head starts up. It didn’t really happen like that, it says. It says, By the looks of the statues, you’d think that everyone involved in the gospel story was a blond-haired and blue-eyed WASP.
And so on. I almost turn away, but my eyes fall on the tight circle of Mary holding the baby Jesus, and all of a sudden a realization comes to me, like a bolt out of the blue, and it zaps the cynical voice in my head, replaces it with a floating feeling of utter awe. What had always been before my eyes, I now suddenly see: that the birth of this great liberating prophet and spiritual teacher—this Bearer of the Light—happens in a time and place that goes contrary to all expectation. Greatness, goes the expectation, ought to be received by greatness. The Buddha was born in a palace. But it is all so different for the Christ. The birth of this Son of God happened in a cold and smelly manger, in an obscure backwater town of Judea, in the time of Imperial Rome with all its crushing greed and brutality. In circumstances even this unpleasant, even this obscure, even this unjust and hopeless, God can be born.
All this is what I realized, standing there in the Chicago cold, looking upon the manger scene. Didn’t matter anymore, all the ways it might have neglected the historical facts. Like a classic work of fiction—which tells moral and spiritual truths better than any work of fact—it was conveying one of the deepest promises of the human spirit: that Bearers of the Light like Jesus can be born anywhere. Justice, compassion, hope: born here and now. Born to you and born to me.
And that’s the story. It happened a while ago, but it says it all for me this year. My continuing sense that something is trying to be born in and through the imperfect circumstances of our lives—something truly wonderful, a creative courage and love that can save the world. I’ll admit—some days I wake up and in no way can I feel the miracle that is trying to be born. I witness the suffering around me—people struggling with illness, or unhealthy relationships, or resentments. I read the headlines, and every day brings evidence of crushing brutality and injustice. I see the brokenness—the lack of compassion and lack of hope. Those are bad days. I know you know what I mean.
But the mystery is real, nonetheless. The miracle is real. With or without the glug, Christmas reminds us about one of the deepest truths of the human spirit.
For you, as for myself, I wish for eyes of faith to see this unfolding miracle. In the manger of our world which can be so often unpleasant, so often obscure, so often hopeless: the miracle is nothing less than the birth of God.
Life is so short. Let’s live it to the full, and let’s never stop expecting miracles to happen, here and now.
Happy holidays, and much love.