Dismantling Christmas

I do not like the task of dismantling our Christmas tree. Before I retired I always found a way to be unavailable when the day came to put Christmas away for another year, occupied with urgent responsibilities elsewhere. Now I have no excuse. It is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas and the job must be done. In fact, in addition to my aversion to taking down the tree, I do not find the days and weeks after Christmas agreeable. It takes so long to get here: preparations begin weeks before, anticipation builds from mid-November on. When I was a child the pre-Christmas excitement was delicious and almost unbearable and there are remnants of that still. And then, some time during the day of December 25, it collapses, like a giant balloon with the air suddenly out.

Each year at this time I recall W. H. Auden’s wry observations at the end of his Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being.

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back in their cardboard boxes-
The holly and the miseltoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week-
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully to love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.

Auden perfectly captures post Christmas ennui:

As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent him away,
Begging though to remain his disobedient servant.

Heidi Neumark reminds us in her post-Christmas Christian Century article entitled  “Bed bugs, Condoms, Frankincense and Myrrh”, of how utterly worldly Christianity is, that the Christmas story itself is always most authentically presented by little ones, imperfect ones, marginal ones, and that the task for all of us, after the warmth and excitement and magic of Christmas, is to remember that it is in this world that incarnation happened and happens.

We have heard the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke all our lives. Many of us know them by heart, can recite them word for word, and I think the familiarity immunizes us from the power of their radical, world-changing message. Everyone loves the shepherds in spite of the fact that they are the most genuinely marginal people in the story. The Magi, not quite as personable as  sheep herders, also make an eloquent and critical point. They’re not as socially and economically marginalized as the shepherd, but they are certainly racially and religiously marginal.  They were “from the east”, Persia and Babylon, perhaps modern Iran and Saudi Arabia. They are known popularly as Wise Men or Kings. They were actually scholarly astrologers and mystics who studied the configurations in the night sky carefully on the assumption that great events in human history were announced by the stars. When they saw something new in the sky they tracked it down. They were not kings, but kings did consult them because of their mystical knowledge. In Matthew’s account the Magi believe they have discovered the portent of the birth of a new king and so they travel west and end up, logically, in the royal palace in Jerusalem. That visit with the real king, Herod, sets off a series of developments; Herod’s duplicity, the arrival of the Magi in a stable in Bethlehem and their joyful response at seeing the infant, their change of plans, and finally the ghastly slaughter of the innocents.

They are quintessential outsiders, non-Jews in a Jewish story, Persians and Arabs at the manger. Matthew introduces Jesus by shattering religious tradition and custom and ethnic boundaries by bringing these strangers center stage. Before the story is over Jesus will himself shatter all the current boundaries of religion and race and social class and status and even gender. Before it is over, all the outsiders – the marginalized: sinners, the unclean, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, poor people, women and children, foreigners, Roman soldiers, will be part of the story, welcome in his presence and included at his table. Jesus will scandalize the most devout, theologically orthodox and morally correct people of his time by his radical inclusivity. Apparently Jesus doesn’t know or care about the anthropological function of a religion to define its adherents, us and them, insiders and outsiders, who’s in and who’s out. Instead he flings open the doors and welcomes all.

Every year as I watch Christmas disappear, I ponder the possibility that this year it will happen: people who have been to Bethlehem will change plans, as the Magi did,  that this will be the year that Jesus’ modern would-be followers will cease their incessant arguing about doctrine, cease constructing barriers to keep people out, ecclesiastical barriers of race, gender, sexual orientation, and recommit to God’s clear mandate, represented by the Magi, of a community, and world, where all are valued and welcomed and equally treated and loved.

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