Thursday, December 22, 2005

Out of the Mystery Comes the Magic

I’ve been trying to figure out this Christmas thing for years. It’s easy enough to separate it into three distinct holidays, neither one related to the other. There’s the Celebration of the American Economy with an orgasmic frenzy of buying gifts and expecting gifts. There’s the Great Family Reunion when people are drawn to spend time with the folks they grew up with whether they actually like them or not. And then there’s the Celebration of God’s gift of a Messiah to humanity. The first 2 are easy to grasp but it’s the last one I am still trying to figure out.

The Celebration of the American Economy comes right at the end of the year when it’s convenient for the boss to give you a little extra bonus for the year’s work. The newspapers keep track of whether this is a good year for the stores or a bad one. And if you haven’t bought enough you feel like a traitor. People spend money they don’t have on things nobody needs.

This new generation- the one they call “X,” is so computer oriented that I started getting emails from my kids with excel spreadsheets of their Christmas requests. My step-mother came to the rescue a few years ago when she decreed that she already had everything in the world she needed and so did we; she donated money to a charity instead and suggested we do the same. It changed our Christmases forever. Now, instead of checking things blandly off our spreadsheet there is the mystery of guessing which charity we “got.” Our family puts a lot of thought and imagination into these contributions. One year Elizabeth gave Beaven a donation to breast cancer research. What in the world does a man care about breast cancer research? Elizabeth calmly pointed out that Beaven has five females that he couldn’t live without.

The church is at it’s best at times like Christmas. In our congregation where we think of each other as family it’s fun to see all the grown up kids return home. And you can’t beat the drama of a church at Christmas. Last year they had a fantastic tableau of the Nativity scene. We even had a real baby Jesus. And Baby Jesus was just as quiet and angelic as they come. The whole congregation was in awe at the sight of him lying there so peacefully with his parents. Then the shepherds came up the aisle to escort the children up to see the baby Jesus. I caught my breath to see Evan Gray dressed as a shepherd. The last time I had seen him was when he returned from Iraq. Evan had been part of the initial invasion, driving into Baghdad in a convoy carrying a shoulder mounted missile launcher. You just gotta appreciate God’s sense of humor in that one. God has given humans the ability to go from invading army to humble shepherd in the blink of an eye.

That same Christmas Eve they passed out candles. Since this was billed as the “Children’s” service we thought nothing of giving each grandchild their own candle. Neither girl, ages 3 and 5 last year, had much experience with candles beyond birthday cakes. I watched Sarah waving her candle around in the excitement of it all and worried about her setting fire to the hairdo in front of us. I was calculating how much hairspray the girl had on and how flammable it was when Sarah spilled hot wax on herself. She let out such a scream of surprise and pain that I’m sure it carried all the way over to the Baptist church across the street. Somehow, she must have jerked her candle when it happened and threw some of the hot wax over to her sister because three seconds later Elisabeth screamed out even louder, a scream for the Methodists two blocks down. These were screams that no amount of hushing or shushing was going to penetrate. So Steve took them out of the sanctuary just as the organist started “Silent Night”. Such are the memories that make family lore. But I digress.

I readily confess that the Messiah/Savior/Emmanuel part of Christmas is a mystery to me. I’ve spent considerable thought trying to figure it out and it just plain old doesn’t make any sense. The whole idea of God sending a human to take the heat for my sins is so incredible—not that I’m ungrateful, mind you. But it just seems so illogical and inefficient. Couldn’t God have sent a detailed memo instead?

And what’s worse, it doesn’t seem to be working. We’re at a place in our world where folks aren’t getting along. I guess we never have. I don’t understand that either—and it frankly makes me pretty mad that we can’t. Now suddenly God just expects me to just forget about all that and be lighthearted because he sent this Jesus guy and it’s all going to work out. This thing just doesn’t make sense any way I look at it.

But, of course, I’m not supposed to use logic. That’s why we call it Faith. Christmas is the time we suspend logic and go in faith. In the middle of this mystery we are presented with magic so profound that we have to accept it. It’s a gut feeling. Christmas has to be celebrated from your instincts; you never make it if you put too much thought into it. Children who have never seen snow or reindeer suspend their experience and believe. We don’t understand mystery or magic either one. But the magic helps me accept the mystery. I had a young friend tell me once that there is no such thing as magic. But what else would you call it if not magic? When the sights and smells and sounds bring an emotion that you can’t describe. When the music of Christmas-- the harp, the zimbelstern, the bells, the French horn, seep into the very pores of your skin and travel through your heart all the way to your toes and bring tears to your eyes.

Out of the mystery comes the magic. I can’t explain it any better than that. It doesn’t really explain much but somehow it’s enough for me.

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