Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Our Unconventional Christmas Tree

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

If you were to visit my home this Christmas season, you would be met with a most unusual sight.  Instead of the traditional pine Christmas tree, this year our tree is very unconventional, and you might be tempted to laugh at it as weird or silly.  But there’s a story behind it, and it might make a little more sense out of our strange Christmas tree.

Here’s a picture of it:

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Very odd, indeed.  Here’s the story:

This autumn has been very difficult for us.  My wife, Peggy, is getting close to finishing her Masters degree in Library Science, and she’s been slaving away at her final project.  For the last month, it’s pretty much all she’s been able to do.  This has been a particular challenge for her, because she suffers from fibromyalgia, an unpredictable and debilitating disorder that gives her acute pain at unexpected times and usually leaves her exhausted and unable to concentrate.  The fact that she has been able to do masters-level work with this condition is amazing to me.

Peggy is very traditional, and loves to decorate the house for Christmas.  She loves to make the place special for us, our children and our guests.  So it was particularly painful to her that she was so busy with her masters paper — which she finally handed in, three days before Christmas — we weren’t able to get out and buy a Christmas tree this year.  Our house won’t be well-decorated, and she’s deeply embarrassed about it. Tears have been seen in the vicinity of our home.

One of the watchwords of our marriage has been that we will always try to adapt and overcome any problem that arises.  So we came up with an idea for a different kind of Christmas tree, the one you see in the picture above.

It’s an umbrella plant, and Peggy gave it to me when we were first dating, way back in 1979.  It was much smaller then, but she’s kept it alive ever since (I have a black thumb).  It’s kind of like our marriage — growing and thriving after all these years, despite all the twists and turns that fate has given us.  So, in a way, this tree is a symbol for the generosity of God that was manifested at Christmas — and the great gift of each other, united and in love, still going strong.

At the base of the umbrella plant, we put another small plant, a Christmas cactus.  It belonged to my mother, and thanks to Peggy’s care, it has bloomed for the first time in many years.  So it, too, is another symbol of something central to Christmas — the fruitfulness of life, and the legacy of our wonderful parents.

The last piece of the story is also important.  I read in the newspaper of the terrible plight of Christians in Iraq, displaced from their homes and unable to celebrate Christmas.  They have no trees — traditional or unconventional — and no gifts.  So we decided that the money that we would have spent on a Christmas tree would instead be donated to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which is doing such great work to alleviate the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  So our odd tree is a symbol of something else essential to Christmas — the vocation to be a gift of self to each other and to all those in need.

So, yes, it’s a very unconventional and strange Christmas tree.  But I hope that the story behind it has helped make sense of it.  If that doesn’t help, let’s look back at the the original Christmas story.  The Son of God emptied himself, and became human in the poorest of circumstances, being born in a cave where the animals lived.  His family suffered to bring him to birth, and they became refugees to protect him.  They sacrificed for the love of each other, and he sacrificed all for the love of us.

I’d like to think that the Lord who came in such a way, and who lived such a life, would like our humble little tree.  I think he’d smile at it, and appreciate what it means.  And he’d feel perfectly at home in its shadow.

The Decision We Must Make

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

As part of my Advent preparations this year, I chose to re-read Pope Benedict’s magnificent book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  This beautiful reflection on the Gospel stories of Our Lord’s birth is a wonderful way to prepare for Christmas.

On passage struck me this year, particularly in light of everything that the Church has been going through, and where I am in my own faith journey.  The Pope wrote about Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, where there was no room for them in the inn, so the Lord of Lords would have to be born in the most humble accommodations imaginable.  Our Holy Father said:

This should cause us to reflect — it points toward the reversal of values found in the figure of Jesus Christ and his message.  From the moment of his birth, be belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. yet it is the unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends.  So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path.

As the commemoration of the Lord’s birth approaches, this is a powerful reminder of the fundamental choice that we all must make — for the ways of the world, or for the ways of God.

The choice is becoming more and more difficult.  Around the world, Christians are being persecuted violently, for the mere fact that they believe in Jesus and wish to worship Him openly.  Here in America, we are governed by an Administration that seeks to arrogate to itself the power to define true religion, and seeks to marginalize those who believe otherwise.  Social stigma is increasingly being placed on Christians, in an effort to pressure us to conform to contemporary hedonism, consumerism and utilitarianism.  Those who dare to speak out publicly for the immemorial beliefs of our faith are blacklisted, excluded, or punished.  We are grieved because in our own lives, so many of our siblings, friends, and children are making wrong choices.

Yet the right decision is always there for us to make.  Our Lord continually beckons from his humble manger, calling us to leave the “important” things of the world behind, to choose the right path, and to walk by his light.  The challenge is to emulate Mary and Joseph, who lowered themselves to enter the stable, trusting that the will of God would prevail against the ways of the world.  To follow the shepherds, who believed the angel and went down to see their Savior on his unlikely throne.  To walk with the Wise Men, across boundaries and through the courts of the powerful, seeking the mystery of a God who emptied himself to take on human estate.

The King of Glory approaches, in the most unexpected way.  What decision will I make?

The Real Threat of Christmas

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Now that Christmas is upon us, we have seen many more disputes about Christmas symbols on public property.  Many Christians see this as a “War on Christmas”.  They rightly object to the legal and social suppression of religious symbols and speech, and object to a radical secularist view that denies the origins of our nation’s history and institutions in a Christian culture. Secular-minded people, for their part, see instead a threat of the establishment of religion.  It’s a mess.

There is no doubt that our courts have contributed to this.  The Supreme Court has made a complete hash out of the First Amendment.  Justice Thomas, earlier this year, spoke of the Court’s “erratic, selective analysis of the constitutionality of religous imagery on government property”, and said the the Court’s “precedents remain impenetrable, and the lower courts’ decisions… remain incapable of coherent explanation”.

The Court has left us with a situation where a manger scene may be put up on public property, but only if it is accompanied by secular symbols — like Santa and Frosty — and is displayed for a secular purpose, such as a recognition of history, or an expression of some amorphouse “civic religion”.  This kind of nonsense leads to such things as speaking of the “real meaning of Christmas” in terms of greeting card nostrums, or the absurd “U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree” that has no symbols of Christianity at all, but instead celebrates — believe it or not — the wonders of California.

But a Christmas that is secular enough — tame enough — for the approval of the government for display on the courthouse steps has no place in a Christianity worth professing.

Our faith is far too radical to be approved by any earthly government.

We start from the premise that, as Pope John Paul wrote, “The redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.”  The small baby in His Mother’s arms makes an extraordinary claim on us — to believe that God has become truly human, and that we are called to surrender our hearts, minds and will to Him and to Him alone.

Our faith in Christ the King compels us to seek to transform the world — including our laws and governments — in light of His gospel.  While we are bound to obey earthly authorities, we must always remember that God is above them all, and our duty to Him and His Kingdom transcends all nations and laws, which are mere historical contingencies that will pass away in time.

In many ways, the forces of secularism perceive Christianity more clearly than we do.  We easily take our faith for granted, as part of the backdrop of our lives, as a safe and comfortable thing.

The secularists are not so complacent.  They rightly see our faith as a threat to their world view.  They see that Jesus is not just a nice fellow and a cute baby — they understand that He is powerful, and a bit frightening, and very demanding.

Of course, nobody needs to fear violence from Christians over manger scenes.  But make no mistake.  Our faith is authentically threatening.  Recognizing the true Kingship of Christ will supplant the pretenses and pomps of our human laws, will strike down the sinful structures that divide and degrade humanity, and will establish real justice in the world.  Every mountain will be made low, and every valley raised high.  The rich will be sent away empty, and the hungry filled with good things.  There are many forces prowling about the world that would not be happy with that outcome, and will show their teeth to us in response.

Good.  When we see a manger scene, we shouldn’t see a hodgepodge of religious and commercial images that will pass court approval.  We shouldn’t see a historical artifact.  We shouldn’t even see a heartwarming reminder of our innocent childhood.

We should see Christmas as a threat to our comfortable way of life, a challenge to make Christ the King of our hearts and our society.  Nothing less.