Season of Hope

The last post explored the political, cultural and religious threads woven into the fabric of Christmas, but it did not contemplate spirituality.  How do we find spiritual meaning in the Christmas season?  Of all the threads, the spiritual one is the oldest, most diverse and perhaps the strongest.

The Talmud is a compilation of Judaism’s Oral Law first written around 200 CE.  It describes two pagan festivals celebrated 8 days before and 8 days after the winter solstice.  The Talmud asserts the pagan festivals originated in a story about Adam, wherein he feared that the shortening days signaled a descent back into the chaos before creation as a punishment for his sins.  He fasted in repentance for 8 days and then noticed the days getting longer, whereupon he celebrated for 8 days.  The story reflects something in the human spirit that yearns for longer days, a new season and the promise of redemption.  It reflects the nature of the human soul to wait and to hope.

Christmas as we know it inherited traditions from many cultures.  Some of them existed centuries before Christ, and some seem like traditions that Jesus would endorse.  For example, Saturnalia’s week-long role reversal of masters and slaves seems like an appropriate way to honor the one who said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave,” and “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Mt 20:26-28)  Other traditions incite excessive consumption and debauchery.  I cannot find a spiritual thread connecting those indulgent traditions to the humility of Christ, and yet they persist to this day.  It’s ironic that the tradition of role reversal, meanwhile, has died.

I have heard the observance of Christmas attributed to Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and proclaimed religious tolerance throughout the empire.  While that would be consistent with the Roman pattern of assimilating peoples’ indigenous practices and making them Roman, it does not agree with history.  The Eastern Roman Empire celebrated Epiphany, and when a bishop said the Christmas feast, it was included on the Epiphany.  It was during the century of Constantine’s rule, however, that theologians attached Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.  This choice may have been influenced more by religious symbolism than by pagan practice.  Scripture quotes John the Baptist in regard to Jesus’ budding ministry saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (Jn 3:30)  That is the 2nd century rationale for aligning Jesus’ birthday to the winter solstice symbolizing his growing ministry and John’s to the summer solstice symbolizing the fulfillment of his.

All the traditions Christmas inherited—those that seem aligned to Jesus’ teaching and those that seem to have no place—have something in common.  They exhibit the human capacity for hope.  A farmer waiting for the first sprouts to bud in spring, a pregnant woman waiting to hold her infant, a sinner hoping to be saved from the net of his own making—they are all utterly human.  As you exist in all the tensions and contradictions tangled up in Christmas, reach for the hope that connects us through it all.

Join the conversation.  What does your soul hope and wait for this Christmas season?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Christmas Unrest

How Christian is Christmas?  The celebration of Jesus’ birth finds no biblical basis, and the bible’s account of the birth suggests a different time of year entirely.  How did Christmas come to be the single most observed Christian holiday?  The story has ancient political, cultural, and religious threads.

Human celebration of the winter solstice is as old as history itself.  Many ancient cultures observed the day when days get longer as a time of waiting and hoping.  Saturnalia is perhaps the best known of these ancient pagan celebrations.  It is said to have been instituted by Roman authorities to lift morale after a crushing military defeat by Carthaginians in 217 BCE.  Nominally, it honored Saturn, god of agriculture and harvests, and coincided with the winter solstice to signal hope for the coming growing season.  The Romans were clever coopt-ers, though.  They assimilated conquered people in part by integrating indigenous customs into Roman customs.  The Roman mantle provided cover for some practical measure of cultural freedom and thus preempted (or at least masked) overt defiance.  Hence, Saturnalia in all likelihood represented different cultural themes to different people in different parts of the empire.

The most noted Saturnalia practices were the reversal of master and slave roles, the exchange of gifts, and indulgences normally prohibited by morals and manners.  Other pagan solstice traditions included Yule logs (Scandinavian), decorative greenery (Roman) and mistletoe (Celtic).  Saturnalia grew in length as it grew in popularity over 200 years, and efforts to shorten the festival first to 3 days by Augustus and then to 5 days by Caligula provoked outrage and unrest.  In Saturnalia, the threads of political authority and popular culture were woven into tension.

The religious thread takes another 300 years to develop.  During the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, theologians debated the date of Jesus’ birth, the appropriateness of celebrating his birthday, and the appropriateness celebrating anyone’s birthday at all.  The Eastern Roman Empire celebrated Jesus’ baptism, the Epiphany, on January 6th, while in Egypt, there was a growing interest in the nativity, particularly the visit by the magi.   Depending on the bishop, the Christmas feast either was or was not celebrated on the Epiphany during those centuries.  Even as observance of the forty days of Christmas and Advent began developing in the Middle Ages, Saturnalia traditions were attached to it.

Ultimately, it was the political thread that firmly affixed Christmas to December 25th.  Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on December 25th, declared Christmas Day, in 800 AD, and almost immediately Christmas became a coronation tradition and a court fashion.  Protestant reformers condemned the excess of Christmas celebrations, going so far as to ban Christmas in England in 1647.  As in earlier millennia, the prohibition incited unrest.  Pro-Christmas rioters seized Canterbury for several weeks, decorated doorways with holly and sang carols in protest.  Christmas remained banned until 1660 in England and until 1681 in Puritan Boston, where celebrating was frowned upon until it became a recognized holiday only in the mid-19th century.

Here we see that Christmas has always sparked controversy.  If you feel pulled into tension between excessive indulgence and the abject humility of the Christ child, then you are in the company of many through history going back to the very origin of Christmas.

Join the conversation.  What tension does anticipation of Christmas ignite in you?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Holiday Tension

The holidays are a time for family togetherness and joy.  Few families enjoy that ideal, however, without some effort.  Those who struggle with strained relationships may feel particular sadness, grief or disappointment in the state of their relationships.  The holidays are a time many ask themselves:  Is there more I could or should do to heal past hurts or to ease family stress?

Families are a peculiar phenomenon.  Earlier this week a circumspect friend was sharing her feelings about attending church across different life stages, and we got into a discussion about what it means to be “spiritual but not religious.”  To my mind, there is a common thread weaving through the fabric of both family and faith community.  The common thread is people do feel a yearning to connect, but past experiences can present obstacles, and sometimes people give up and look for connections elsewhere.

The analogy I use is a professionally trained a musician who plays the piccolo or viola or kettle drums—not a solo instrument.  He devotes thousands of hours of disciplined practice to master the instrument, and to what end?  The goal is not to perform alone.  The goal is to perform as a body, as an orchestra.  When a hundred individuals who are passionate about their art gather and share that passion together, something magical happens.  Think about it: how many times in the past week have you been among a hundred highly skilled individuals completely absorbed in something they feel passionately about?  It is an extraordinary phenomenon.  What happens when the musician feels this adagio is too crisp or that movement gets a little repetitive or one arrangement isn’t as good as another?  Does he go looking for an orchestra elsewhere?  Does the musician play because he likes every little detail of every program?  No, he plays to experience the magic of it.  He rises above any disagreement of this or that detail to experience the thrill of the symphonic phenomenon.

No doubt, there is much to criticize in any religion, institution or family.  They are all of human making, after all.  We have a few players in my family who are chronically out of tune.  But like musicians, we don’t have to have the same opinions, personality or style to appreciate the mystery of family.  We don’t have to approve of every church policy or like every piece of liturgy to appreciate the mystery of corporate worship.  Expecting everyone in a congregation or a family to share the same preferences or ideas is like expecting every musician in the symphony to play the same instrument.  It is precisely because of our differences and the tensions between us that coming together is such a powerful spiritual phenomenon.

I want to leave with you the thought that tension is vital because it connects us.  Tension is often what holds things together, or at least what makes things interesting.  When you fly a kite, it’s the tension on the string that keeps it aloft.  Have you heard the expression “pushing a rope?”  No tension indicates no useful connection.  As you wade into Advent as a season of waiting, introspection and hope, be attuned to the tension.  Changing circumstances, such as the youngest child leaving home, may cause some tensions to dissipate but create opportunities for empty nesters to draw each other into new tensions.  As you exist in the tension, feel where connections are tense and where they are loose.

Join the conversation.  Where are tensions robust and where are connections loose in your relationship with God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

One’s Victim as One’s Hope

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams asserts many Christians tragically misinterpret Acts 4:12 “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved,” by taking it out of its specific context. Appreciating Jesus’ Jewish point of view helps us understand Williams’ point.  In this case, Jesus was addressing the people of Jerusalem following his crucifixion and resurrection.

The context is Pilot found no fault with Jesus.  He tried to get Herod to indict him, but Herod declined and sent Jesus back to Pilot.  Pilot was desperately looking for any excuse to spare Jesus so as not to have Jesus’ blood on his hands.  Pilot would have been all too glad for the crowd to have advocated for Jesus’ release.  The crowd could have tipped the balance of Jesus’ fate to justice, but instead they yelled, “Crucify him!”  The audience addressed in Acts 4:12 is not all of humanity.  Williams points out, “It is not a neutral audience, and it is not an innocent audience.”

Similarly, Jesus’ statement in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” is addressed specifically to his closest friends the night before they betray him.  In Judaism, atoning for our sins leads to the door of our victim—in this case, Jesus. Hence, from Jesus’ Jewish point of view, his statement to his disciples in the upper room can be understood to mean their only way to atonement with God is teshuvah through him.

Williams describes a double reversal, wherein Jesus returns to judge the people of Jerusalem who condemned him, and more startling, the prospect of being judged by the victim Jesus is perceived not as a threat but rather a promise of hope.  Williams goes on to describe the early resurrection preaching as, “an invitation to recognize one’s victims as one’s hope.”

We are not all dealt the same cards in life.  Some people get a really sorry hand, and there is nothing fair about it.  A young woman recently reminded me of this.  She grew up in a house full of abuse, and she received a ration of it at the hands of both her father and his brother.  She spent significant portions of her childhood in foster care and a residential psychiatric facility.  At 15, she birthed a baby boy.  By the time he was 6 weeks old, she was back in a psychiatric facility, unable to care for him.  She survived numerous suicide attempts and finally escaped her childhood when she married the same kind of man her father was.  She subsequently had four more children, and the horror continued into adulthood.

She desperately wanted to give her children a different childhood than she had, to break the cycle, but she didn’t.  The hardest thing for her to survive has been losing parental rights for her children.  What hurts most is sheer grief for the loss.  She had no vision for her life as an adult alone.  She thought it would be impossible to stay alive, but her life persists day by day nonetheless.  She hopes someday her children will look for her, and she imagines they will want to find a person, a healthy and whole person rather than a death certificate stamped suicide.  Her victims are her hope.

Join the conversation.  What power do you have to redeem the one who hurt you?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Finding Hope in the Road Not Taken

I sat down to write a post about making wrong turns in life and feeling grief for the good consequences lost because of the path we chose instead.  Grief—over the loss of a relationship, an opportunity, a job, another’s trust in you, your trust in another, years gone by, money spent foolishly, pleasures given up, and, of course, death—is real.  A reader’s comment to a previous post changed my course, though.  She expressed hope, not grief, in examining what could have been.

“Through my years, I have let my pain and memories cripple me more than grow, but now, as my journey with God has allowed me, I am using it to learn about me as a person, seeing my own potential as I should have been.  I guess I visualize things as, ‘they could be worse’ and as ‘they could be better.’ The growth that I have experienced is amazing and the peace is wonderful.”

How is it that this reader finds peace instead of grief?  One thing that strikes me is her gratitude.  She balances her perspective on her life’s difficulties with an appreciation of the difficulties others face.  “I always tell myself, that no matter how much things are bad for me, there is someone else who has it much worse,” she said.

Another quality I admire is her acceptance of herself.  All the variants of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief model end with acceptance.  An accepting recollection of a painful reality might bring thoughts like this:  “That episode was very painful to several people for a long time.   I wish I had been strong enough to have chosen different actions, but I wasn’t and I didn’t.  God uses the crumbs of my failure and gives them some meaning.  He alone can extract the slag of my sin to bring about some goodness, and in my weakness his strength is made perfect.”  Accepting a painful reality can be tough.
Accepting ourselves where we have fallen short can be tougher still.  Seeing ourselves as God sees us—as dearly loved and desperately wanted children—can start melting self-condemnation.

The most admirable thing to me is the hopefulness she finds in her potential.  “I should have been” implies “I could have been,” and it signals an inherent goodness that can be drawn upon.  Instead of beating up on herself for what she didn’t do, she recognizes her potential as a sign of hope.  The reader shows that the crucial element transforming a self-critical impulse into a hopeful impulse is trust in God.  “Learning to lean on God is one of the hardest things for me, as I am giving Him total control of me, but, it has been the most helpful and wonderful life altering experience.”

To borrow Henri Nouwen’s words, inviting God into the action of examining past missteps transforms them from a cause of despair into a sign of hope.

Join the conversation.  What do you feel when you reflect on the wrong turns you have taken?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Charting a Course: Sources of Hope

Many years ago, a friend’s beloved black lab was diagnosed with cancer.  It was a particular kind of cancer that was proven to be treatable in dogs, but the treatment had severe side-effects.  Doctors can tell human patients, “There’s good news and bad news.  The bad news is it will feel like this treatment is killing you.  The good news is it will actually save your life instead.”  You can’t communicate that to dogs, though.  Dogs receiving treatment gave up on life and died in distress in such great numbers that veterinary best practice evolved to making dogs comfortable as long as possible before euthanizing.  Dogs couldn’t bear the journey without some concept of the destination.  They couldn’t endure without hope.

The destination can be a source of hope for us, too.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.
The destination also gives us hope when we look inward to determine the course correction we need.  Looking inward is difficult.  Confronting the fact that we veered off course can be painful, and the pain can arise in a number of ways.  Here are three of them.

Consequences:  Incarceration, civil damages, foreclosure, loss of relationship, health, job, or life…some consequences are exquisitely painful.  So is genuine grief for years one can’t get back and opportunities that won’t come again.  Someone who spent her childbearing years in an unfruitful relationship might grieve the years gone by.  She
might morn the lost opportunity to put a little sock on a little foot every morning or to teach someone how to eat an apple.  Facing what is lost is one way we encounter pain.

Compassion:  The earnest seeker will, at some point, stop defending himself from the
truth.  In an effort to rationalize our actions to ourselves, we erect barriers to truth.  We hold our victims culpable in some way for our actions against them.  When we release ourselves from the self-defense pretense, we have an unobstructed view to the pain we caused others.  Feeling their pain, compassion, is a natural response to confronting this truth.

God’s pain:  Imagine being in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual demonstration of love and support is overlooked or taken for granted.  Your intervening help saves the day over and over, but your partner acts as if she had it under control all along and you didn’t have anything to do it.  You work hard to dream up the perfect gift and are excited to give it, but it is left unopened, not even important enough for her to bother unwrapping.  What kind of relationship is that?  It is how I treat God.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, experiences all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, the compassion I feel for the one I hurt.  Perhaps most significant is what God feels when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.  When we come into a full realization of the impact our choices have on our relationship with God, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This is a special kind of pain.  To feel the pain God feels over you is to grasp just how much he loves you.  It is a big step into intimacy with God, and it is our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What hope sustained your honest look inward?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.