December, month number 12 bearing the name 10, is possibly the best name for a month of deception, dissemblance and dishonesty. Most of it is presumably benign. Santa Claus, for example. Hidden Christmas presents we drop misleading hints about. Some other displays of good will are meant to signify unselfishness: bell ringing for charity, baskets for the poor, Christmas carol singing for those who are shut-in or locked-up.. These things fill the month and then we add things we simply cannot avoid, such as lunches, office parties, and trips to visit nearly forgotten relatives. There’s an element of prevarication in most of what we do in December. Gift giving in hopes of getting an enthusiastic response is probably our most honest action.
It’s all good fun.
Motives are almost always too complex to be easily analyzed. But the entire season is obfuscated. The darkest month of the year is spattered with glittering spectacles that do not bear intense investigation. We’ve attacked most of it, anyway, with our complaints about Christmas Muzak in shopping malls, fake Christmas trees, and even cone shaped light displays without any trees at all. We loathe the commercialization of the season and still spend more than we planned. Is it just primal gloom that we must try to put to flight with our strings of electric fire? Saturnalia was obliterated so we reinvented it.
There is a reason for the season and we have named it “Jesus”. Christ is the reason we are doing all this, but best not think too much about what exactly we are doing, much less why. The attachments and add-ons do not bear scrutiny. The customs of December are so mutated, in fact, that Christmas has been prohibited from time to time, only to come back re-clad in attractive garments to gladden hearts. St. Francis, it is said, to dispel the dark dangers of the late Middle Ages, assembled a Christmas tableaux that was so fetching it became a tradition. That fostered a whole Alpine woodcarving industry. One thing led to another until Christmas didn’t seem like a good idea any more. So the Puritans, famous for burning witches and beheading royalty, purified Christmas by banning it. But then came the wily Dutch with Sinterklaas, and Luther with his candle-lit evergreen trees.
Charles Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas story in English after King James authorized the second chapter of Luke. It was, in my view, a metaphor. The season, Dickens tells us, is beclouded with dark memories and portents that turn it into “humbug” where Scrooge is beset with obligations that enrage him. Hidden in shadows are other, brighter memories and possibilities. Happily, they are the ones that emerge to reclaim the day. Dickens was preaching. Industrial England, beclouded in soot and smoke, had the same choice as had confronted Ebenezer Scrooge, to shrivel in his chilly confines or to join the singing.
And behind it all is still more mystery.
Who were those people mentioned by Matthew and Luke, assembled by St. Francis to give three-dimensional presence to otherwise vague characters? What do we know of them, Mary and Joseph and the babe, lying in a manger? Shepherds, angels, wise men from the East bearing gifts? We know of them what we have chosen to know. We have provided narrative for missing words to satisfy our need for light to dispel darkness. And, lo, the darkness is not that hard to disperse. Words can do it. There is THE STORY and there are more stories. They multiply.
Mary, who are you? THE STORY says she is a handmaiden of the Lord. She is the mother of Jesus, and first-line witness to his birth events. And a century or so later she needed to be a virgin for in the stories of other incarnate deities were they not born of virgins? A verse in Isaiah would do, where “young woman” could be “virgin” if needed. And are not mothers of gods immaculate? How immaculate does the mother of God need to be? Then, should she not be our Mother, too? “Holy Mary … pray for us ….”
There is much darkness, so we will light a candle. We people dwelling in darkness are needy. We need, among our many needs, a season to be reminded to be grateful for starlight and candlelight.
[Appreciation to Gene Bourquin for the picture of him outside Maya Mall in Chiang Mai.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.