December 28, 2014
It happened Christmas Eve, but we didn’t know about it until dinner Christmas Day.
We had all filled our plates, and that lovely hush had fallen over the table that happens when everyone is first fully occupied with the serious business of eating Christmas dinner.
After a short time of this delicious silence, however, one of my guests spoke in a very serious voice.
“You will never believe what happened to me last night at . . ,” he said, and named a big-box store that he had visited the previous evening. What appeared to be a mild look of shock still remained on his face.
Among the friends gathered at the table, this person is known as a famously canny shopper. For adventure’s sake, he occasionally investigates the pre-post-Christmas sales mark-downs that occur just before stores close on Christmas Eve.
I lack any pretense of such courage. I remain dependent upon first-hand reports of this consumer populated world in the same way I depend upon serious travelers to describe the behavior of penguins at the Pole. However, I remain deeply interested in the behaviors of each (Penguins and people) but from a place of safety, you understand.
Sensing a good story in the making, however, I asked, only half-facetiously, “I suppose you found bargains that the store paid you to carry away?”
“More astonishing that that,” he said. “You will have trouble believing this, but there were no Christmas things left to buy.”
“You mean that the carry-away stunt had been successful?” I asked, following the narrative thread of the story in my mind.
“No. No. You don’t get it,” he interrupted. “Listen: there were no Christmas things left—nothing left to carry away, or to buy, or even to look at. Christmas was over. The store was as bare of Christmas as it is on Ground Hog’s Day. On Christmas Eve. What do you think about that?”
By this time, others at the table were tuned into the story, and began to raise questions of their own.
“Maybe the sale items were in a different part of the store,” suggested another guest, also a veteran shopper.
“No. I asked,” said the storyteller. “The manager said there were no Christmas things left in the store. Period.”
“Well, where did they put them?” remarked a guest known for her organizational skills. “There has be a place to put things away. Christmas stuff just doesn’t disappear—worse luck—it all has to be put away.”
“Maybe they have warehouses somewhere," said another person, “maybe they have warehouses and people that just come in and clean up.” (Secretly, I suspected that this guest might have been no more eager than I to think about post-Christmas clean-up).
“Well, I don’t know,” said the storyteller dubiously, clearly dissatisfied with the ending of his story. “All I know is that it was Christmas Eve, and the manager himself said that the Christmas stuff was all gone.”
Conversation moved on to other topics.
Later, after dinner things were cleared away and guests had departed, I sat with Annie for a quiet time, the room around us filled with soft lights and the lingering scent of good food, my heart warmed by thoughts of these friends and the caring community we share.
However, as you know, I am into a major re-edit of the personal version of the Christmas story I have cobbled together willy-nilly in my mind over the years. Once such a project is launched, there is no predicting the time it may abruptly surface demanding further work.
There I was, warm and peaceful with Annie asleep on my lap, and my eye was caught by the flickering candle that back-lit the still sculpted figures of Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus on the dark table nearby. A white chrysanthemum in the vase behind them had dropped a petal into the Child’s crèche, and one had fallen on Joseph’s robe.
And, unbidden, the last line of the dinner-table story suddenly popped into my mind.
Christmas Eve—and all the Christmas stuff was gone.
Christmas Day—and the Christmas story done?
Only in the silly story that is culturally and religiously compromised in my head.
Those of you who traditionally celebrate Advent in the old liturgies of the church can have little understanding of the sheer shock that first celebration of Advent in a liturgical setting can be for those of us who first began our spiritual journey in the informal, unstructured, and (let’s be honest) the firmly laisse-faire approach to the church calendar adopted by small “independent” Protestant churches.
Eventually, I came to see that if I wished to understand the ancient church calendar I should experience it, and, logically, start at the beginning of the church year: The First Sunday in Advent. This, to my surprise, came immediately after Thanksgiving. So I found a church that seemed reasonably beginner-friendly, and started my learning curve, cautiously attending services the duly designated First Sunday of Advent.
Christmas surprises began immediately.
I can remember a sample of my own inner dialogue throughout that mind-altering, faith-nurturing Advent season.
What?!!! No greens in the sanctuary until Christmas itself?
No carols (well, mostly that minor thing about “Come, O Come Emmanuel) until after Christmas? That’s when everybody else is sick and tired of carols.
And what in the world can be meant sensibly by this twelve-days-of-Christmas business? Christmas is one day, the 25th of December, the day that Jesus was born.
And candles that are purple and pink, with a white candle that can’t be lit until Christmas?
What is this all about?
Now, in retrospect, I can see that God was already answering my prayer for a Spirit-lit heart years before I prayed that prayer in English. However, the dinner-table story provided a high-contrast screen displaying the competing traditions of the culture and the orthodox understanding of the Christmas story.
In the tradition of the church and the calendar of the church year, Christmas begins about the time that the managers in the big-box stores (and some of us slow-learners) begin to put the Christmas stuff away.
I trust that “putting away the Christmas stuff” will be a helpful beginning for you to explore with me in the weeks ahead the continuing Christmas story.
There’s this muddled up business about the “Wise Men.” Who were those fellows anyway? Were there really three of them?
And what did Joseph (usually a sensible fellow) mean by getting up in the night and bundling up Mary and the baby and taking off for Egypt? An angel told him to? Really?
And what was God thinking when His plan for this angel-directed trip into Egypt saved Jesus’s life but resulted in Herod’s brutal slaughter of all the two-year olds in Bethlehem and its borders?
What do we make of Matthew’s use of the prophet Jeremiah as Matthew writes:
A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah—
Weeping and mourning unrestrained.
Rachael weeps for her children,
Refusing to be comforted—for they are dead.
And this church calendar business?
What is the deal about this Epiphany time, and the changing of colors at the altar in the liturgical churches? Does Epiphany mean that Christmas is really over?
Thinking that I have learned deeply from a consumer icon, a big-box store; I can hear the Christmas story more clearly when the Christmas stuff is put away.
See you next week.