Angels and shepherds, please!

51711dtHow we love the images and symbols of Christmas! Santa Claus, trees, angels, snowmen, candy canes, camels, Charlie Brown Christmas, nativity scenes, cows, drummer boys, or baby Jesus himself? We love them all, don’t we? How easy it can be easy to stick with just these images, no matter how much we might want to do otherwise.

Even the most religious among us gets tangled in webs of perfect-looking crèches, each with a delicate with very-western-looking baby Jesus smiling up from a bed of straw that is both unnaturally uniform and clean. Those symbols however are not the issue; stopping and staying with them for good is can become a problem, especially when you consider this Christmas message…

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
The Gospel According to John 1:1-5

Wait, where is the bright star over the little town of Bethlehem? And where are the angels and shepherds? What about the manger? Well, they are all in there, even if you can’t “see” them clearly. That is the Gospel meant to be proclaimed at mass on Christmas Day, and chances are, a number of us won’t be hearing that Gospel, for a multitude of reasons. In a recent column for Commonweal magazine, Rita Ferrone wrote: “’People want to hear about shepherds and angels,’ a pastor I once worked for told me, ‘and that’s what we give them.’ I’m convinced this represents a loss.”

real-saint-nicholasFor many of us, the symbols do matter. Even Santa Claus, if you distill down all contemporary commercialization, represents a saint. Symbols express deeper meanings; such as one finds in the sacramental symbols of bread, water, and wine. These seemingly ordinary things, become the living God, present with and in us. Don’t think of this as just a “Catholic thing.” Recently I heard Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber speak very powerfully about grace made manifest in bread, wine, and oil. Symbols have potential for all of us.

Christmas Eckhart quoteThe words of Meister Eckhart may reorient those of of who may become symbol-bound. “Do not cling to the symbols, he once said, “but get to the inner truth.” The birth of Christ we celebrate today is just that – the single most profound inner truth of all time. God has not only taken human form, which is mind-blowing in and of itself, but God has done so with incredible details. A baby, born in unusual circumstances in an unusual place, and not with much fanfare. Unless you count those shepherds, who were among the lowliest people of their time. It is all truly grass-roots stuff here, God who could arrive on a golden cloud, sitting on a throne and breathing fire, decides to take the alternate route. That is an inner truth that we can ponder for a long time.

staroftopSo what do we make of it all? The mystical words of John’s Gospel talking about “the Word,” and Eckhart’s mystical command? Can’t we just have angels and shepherds – please? A pretty little town of Bethlehem scene, complete with a big shining star overheard – is that so hard? And of course we have those things, but do we cling to them? Or do we allow them to lead us?

Christ was born so that the world might be transformed. It has been 2000 years, we are pretty slow learners, aren’t we? Maybe this Christmas we can enjoy our shepherds, angels, manger scenes, and so forth, but also go a bit deeper.

One way we to get there would be to think about the symbols that keep us stuck. If, for example, we feel really strongly about the perfection of the manger, can we press in and think about what it might have really been like? Not simply the stink of it all and the mess, but fact that in the midst of it all is the child Jesus? Talk about light in the darkness, born into the stable is our God!

What about the symbols that help us to go deeper, the bright light of the star perhaps. Is it possible to meditate and pray on what what ways we have yet to imagine the light and how it brings us gain. I’m not talking about simple gain like “Jesus was born and I am saved.” Even if that is true! But what does it really mean if we ponder the transformation of the world? Suddenly I’m thinking about how light does everything from help heal wounds to grow plants and to create solar energy. The possibilities are endless – if we open our minds and hearts.

Finally, what about symbols of Christmas that are thus far unseen or unrecognized by us, what about those? What might we find if we explore the unknown territory? Astronaut Dave Wolf speaks of darkness and light as seen from his spacewalks. These familiar symbols of dark and light take on an entirely different meaning when seen from a vastly different perspective. We might not be able to get outselves into space, but we can push inward. How does the birth of Christ bring light to dark places deep in our own hearts? The very hearts we may be reluctant to push into await us.

The symbols and the reality of the Christ child and the light coming into the world offer us comfort and courage. Our very human God is willing to take our lowly form, to be just like us. If God can do it, if God promises to be with us as we go, our symbol search may illuminate more than we bargained for as we release the symbols and pursue the truth.

The child in the manger is the symbol, the the baby Jesus is the one we cling to, and when go exploring by the light of the star, the inner truth is at last within our grasp. Do not just cling to the symbols, let them lead you to the light of Christ.

May Christmas joy be yours – be assured of my gratitude and of my prayers. Thank you for joining me on this journey!