Let’s get out our shovels. We are searching for the true meaning of Christmas – this season that rushes upon us and is as quickly gone again. Our quest will proceed on the analogy of an archeological dig.
Before even breaking the surface, one layer in the meaning of Christmas is commercial. Earlier each year, it seems, retailers are pumping the music, putting out their holiday sets, and giving us fair warning that our chance at 60% off is “this weekend only.”
Christmas is a celebration of materialism. It is time to buy – before it’s too late. All the glitzy and gaudy trinkets, the Jing Tinglers and Flu Floopers, are brought out of storage to get us in the mood. Our credit card balance after the holidays is the lingering reminder that we got bamboozled once again.
Just barely under the surface of this layer of Christmas commercialism is the figure of Santa Claus. He’s the one we’re waiting for, hoping he’ll bring us what we really want this year. Or maybe he’s the one we’re pretending to be as we swipe to satisfy the material cravings of our children.
“Santa Claus” is an informal rendering of Saint Nicolas, which suggests that this genius of package delivery logistics is somehow (or once was) a religious notable. His backstory in folk tale and legend tells of his charitable endeavors in bringing cheer to orphans and children whose families couldn’t afford the luxury of toys.
The giving of gifts brings us down yet another layer in our excavation of Christmas. We need to be reminded every year that it’s not the gift but the thought and love behind the gift that really matters. Back in the day, according to the Bible story, wise men from the east brought Baby Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Narrative detail would probably be more important to us had Christianity remained anchored in its foundational myths. As it happened, story gave way to theology, and abstract doctrines took over from the concrete narratives that shaped the earliest Christian experience.
Stories are arranged in a system called a mythology; doctrines are arranged in a system known as orthodoxy. Stories appeal to the imagination, doctrines to the intellect.
At the doctrinal level, Christmas is about the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son), the sinful condition of humanity, the “kenosis” or self-emptying of God in becoming human. The vehicle of this incarnational miracle was a virgin, whose status as “Christotokos” (Christ-bearer) made this a central doctrine not only for Roman Catholics but Protestants as well.
Inside of story and deep along its root-line is metaphor, which is a way of representing something that eludes our conceptual grasp. Once the metaphor is offered up by creative imagination, our minds get busy weaving a meaningful pattern of storylines around it.
Stories of immaculate conceptions and virgin births can be found across the cultures. Early Christian storytellers were not the first to ponder this metaphor as a kind of doorway or passage from eternity into time. It’s important to know at this point that eternity does not mean “everlasting” or “unending,” as it is popularly (mis)understood today. Instead of “without end,” eternity refers to what is “without beginning.”
Rather than thinking of eternity as an endless extension of time, or as another realm of existence separate from this one, imagine time as we (think we) know it moving like a horizontal stream in a “forward” direction. Eternity would be represented as a perpendicular line drawn straight down along the vertical axis. The place of this intersection is not itself part of the time-stream, but always NOW. It’s not that this present moment comes to us from the future, and neither does it recede into the past. It is timeless.
Contemplating Mary and the universal metaphor of the Virgin Mother, we can begin to appreciate her value to mystics everywhere, by whatever name she is called. She is a literary symbol, a mythical archetype, and – in a celebrated paradox – the spiritual embodiment of those qualities that must be nurtured if you are to be fully present to the mystery. What qualities?
Emptiness. The opposite of emptiness is not fullness, but preoccupation. Instead of relaxing the boundary of attention and expanding your capacity for awareness, your mind becomes increasingly cluttered. Real presence is available as you are able to drop assumptions (from the past), release expectations (for the future) and surrender all distractions.
Humbleness. From the root-word humus, “humble” and its cognate “humility” carry the idea of being fully grounded. Not exalted or “full of yourself,” not inflated or disengaged from what’s going on, but fully here and now. Humility is a position of greatest strength, balance, and resilience. In the present moment you are grounded in the really real.
Faithfulness. Having little or nothing to do with orthodox beliefs, faith refers to the act of entrusting yourself to the providential support of reality in this moment. Its opposite is not doubt, but conviction, which is not about opening up to mystery (as faith is) but closing down on meaning.
Creativity. The creative life is not about “making” something of yourself or accomplishing great things in the eyes of others. You give a lot of attention and time to making money, making progress, making up, and making do. Creativity doesn’t flow along the conventional channels of effort, work and accomplishment. Instead it breaks into time through the portal of this present moment.
I’m suggesting that while in the deeper layers Christmas might seem like it’s about something that happened a long time ago, the early Christian myth-makers were not writing history, doing theology, or just making stuff up. The Story is a creative composition, to be sure, but it’s more an exercise in mystical contemplation than anything else.
Christmas is an invitation to get to a place where you are empty, grounded, and open to the real presence of mystery. Only then – when you are centered, quiet and receptive within – can the creative life truly begin.
The revolutionary life of Jesus came through the contemplative preparation of Mary. It still does.