There is a lot of nonsensical chatter amongst Christians (and others who seem obliged to instruct a religion on how they should and should not celebrate their holy day) about Christmas. It is as though there are five hundred persons in a train terminal having six hundred different conversations. “Keep Christ in Christmas.” “Having a tree is pagan.” “Christmas is just a pagan holiday the Christians took over.” “Kids should not be told there is a Santa.” “Pass the eggnog.”
Okay, I made that last one up but somewhere someone is asking for eggnog. We know this. Here’s my pastoral suggestion for us as we make our final descent into Bethlehem. Find a quiet place where you can retreat for as long as it takes you to say a simple prayer.
That is my advice. That’s it? Well, that’s it in a nutshell. Whether you walk into a beautiful church—and in Washington DC, you have a remarkable choice of places to retreat—or simply find a museum and stand before a work of stunning beauty or sit beside a window of light with all the electronics and noise turned off, sip the silence like a goblet of wine and say a prayer. Say a prayer preferably of thanks (no prayers for toys or favors). You could begin it this way: “The Word became flesh. Thank you. Fill me with this mystery, Lord God.” But really, any simple prayer said in the sanctuary of solitude set aside from the noise and banging pots and pans of a consumer culture hollow but not anywhere near hallowed, might deliver you into a golden moment or hour of bright awareness that God is Love and you are the recipient of a great Love in Christ.
As for all that other stuff—from chestnuts roasting on an open fire to bells both silver and jingling—hey, I’m all for that. And here is why: I have been lost without a recognizable marker anywhere that could get me back on the road, headed in the right direction. This season—apart from the mystery of the Word became flesh—is a landmark. Every year your journey stops by this marker called Christmas. For those who are not religious, it is a winter holiday. Fine by me. Really. Because the way this works—the way tradition and family and music and art and feast become intertwined—is that our mundane lives poured out over 365 days of routine and habit suddenly find a marker that helps us put so much into perspective. Like, “I am on a journey.” “I have been here before and now can find my way.” Human beings have much to mourn, much to grieve about, and much to repent of. But in this season, we turn our hearts and minds to family, friends, stories and songs, decorations and festive activities in a combined, if not coordinated, effort to celebrate with hope our species: human beings within whom abide deep reservoirs of altruism and even heroism. That is worth the trip. And it is a landmark on your journey that can, with God’s grace, send you forth into another year smelling of pine and purpose and sated with eggnog.