In The Depth of the Season

Improvised Christmas Pageant, First Universalist Society, Burlington, Vt

Improvised Christmas Pageant, First Universalist Society, Burlington, Vt. The woman on the left is signing.

I hope you are enjoying a splendid Holiday Season, and that it continues for a few more days.We welcome your sharing about this Holiday Season.

We, as a family, celebrate Hanukkah, The Winter Solstice, and Christmas in all their complexity. During November and December we also acknowledge the die Kristallnacht on November 9th, remember our friends who died of AIDS on December 1st, and grieve for those lost at Wounded Knee, and at other Christmas timed massacres of First Nations people, on December 29th. As you might imagine, the Holidays for us are a deep blend of joy and sadness, celebration and grieving. Each year, this gumbo of emotion, memory, and signifier become richer, demanding more focused contemplation.

Sometimes we get the sense Hanukkah and Christmas are in competition. I have even heard Hanukkah referred to as a Jewish response to Christmas. Indeed, this came up in conversation again this morning.  I imagine the statement is, in part, true. Christmas is a vast enterprise, seemingly overwhelming all in its path, and demanding response and resistance from cultures caught in its grip. Yet, I believe there is another, more central reason for the rise in importance of Hanukkah in the Jewish liturgical year: The Holocaust. In the darkness of Nazi Europe, and following the Holocaust, Hanukkah became a natural symbol for Jewish, indeed, all human resistance to oppression. (See this richly textured presentation by Yad Vashem.)

It is easy to forget that Christmas, too, honors resistance to oppression, and the mass killing of Jewish children in an effort to prevent a longed for liberation. Underneath the many layers of liturgical masonry that cover it, Christmas was, and remains, a time of hope for the present and future, and an acknowledgement of the miracle of human incarnation. It is also a dramatically forthright challenge to those who utilize terror and genocide.

Tomorrow is Holy Innocents Day in the Christian calendar, although many Protestant churches do not acknowledge this memorial day. (One of the losses associated with the Protestant Reformation was that of history and human suffering.) The Episcopal Church recently made the association between mythic history and today in relationship to the massacre at Newtown:

Newtown, Washington, and the Way Forward

…..One of the more striking contrasts on the Christian calendar is the commemoration of the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28, three days after the celebration of Christmas.  In remembering the young children slaughtered by King Herod in Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth, the Church jolts us from Christmas joy into a contemplation of the ways in which violence and human brokenness, in spite of Christmas, still enslave the human race.   Today, just as two thousand years ago, the most jolting violence of all is that committed against innocent children.

This year, that jolt came earlier, and much more tangibly, than it normally does.  The murder of 26 innocent victims, many of them children, in a schoolhouse in Connecticut in the waning days of Advent ripped through the joy of Christmas for millions.

Christmas, and even more so Easter, have been subverted at times, becoming themselves vehicles of hatred. This tragedy underscores  our human tendency to demonize the Other, rather than seeing ourselves reflected in the life experiences of others. Many of our Jewish friends were the victims of blatant Antisemitism as children. This ethnic hatred was fueled by leaders in Christian churches, and based on the blatant falsehood the Jews killed Jesus. For them, Christmas and Easter (periods when Antsemitism was rampant and often violent) remain times of discomfort, if not fear.

Yet, any deep reading of Jesus’ teachings or understanding of the historical conditions governing the experience of the Nativity suggests that such scapegoating belies an essential message of Christmas; Christmas, like Hanukkah, remains a  gesture of great hope, and a challenge to oppression everywhere. Acknowledging this opens the door to a larger reading of the Christmas story, rather than diminishing the centrality of Jesus life and teaching for Christians.

Saturday marks the anniversary of the massacre of Native people at Wounded Knee, December 29th, 1880. Most of those killed were women, children and elders. Today, racist actions continue to destroy the lives of countless First Nations people. This season, the Canadian government has launched an effort to disenfranchise all Indigenous people of Canada, and First Nations people around the world have raised their voices in protest via Idle No More, largely without the support or acknowledgement of the leaders of the world’s major religions.

In an age of foreshortened memory and strategic forgetting, we remember. At this time of darkness, cold, and celebration we hold to the traditions, acknowledge painful histories, and work for a world of shared resources and joy, a planet where the  children of all people are held as sacred and are nurtured.

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4 thoughts on “In The Depth of the Season

  1. How often do we forget to acknowledge the greater picture? You are reminding us that these thoughts and considerations surely surface in the conversations that take place at our tables as people from all beliefs and cultures gather to eat. We see them as a whole, our dining guests, not always realizing the diverse history, struggles and overcoming they represent. Thank you for these thoughts.

    • I imagine many crucial conversations occur at table in your restaurant, and in your home. I wonder how often the barriers that separate us, barriers based on acculturation and life experience, are circumvented in the process of sharing a meal. How often do people sit together and look beyond the simple stories to the meaty, complex ones that have the potential to draw us closer to one another, to move us beyond the limiting qualities of difference without negating difference? Diversity is unsettling and enlivening. Our stories tell us who we are and who we are not. Sometimes they tell us how we share life, even in our differences. Within our diverse histories, struggles, and cultures lie the commonalities that mark our human experience.

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