Wonderstanding the Christmas Story

Posted on Dec 18 2005

Don’t bother about that first word on the title. It is not in the dictionary. I mean by it a few notches beyond mere understanding. Wonderstanding is the enlightened heart bearing intellectual clarity. It is the brain bursting with the passion of the mind!

I pointed out to my sixth graders who are studying ancient civilization that the accretion to the Christian story of the birth-death-resurrection is traceable to the cyclical birth-rebirth of the Egyptian sun god Ra. We derived the “Son of God” from the Greek Olympian pantheon of gods, and the “pantocratic Christo Rei” from imperial Rome.

The various outer practices and symbols associated with the Christian dramaturgical tradition since the post-Medieval mindset wrenched the secular out of the religious is enormous. Add to that the modern commercialization of the holiday season where every sales pitch and marketing design competes for a global niche in the consumer’s internal castle, and the situation bears no semblance to what might have been a liturgical intent to empower a life-affirming message. It is buried and exploited under the din and glitter of holiday revelers. Hardly is the experience of awe and wonder that used to accompany a shaft of light filtered through stained glass windows to light up a nativity scene while the faithful wade through wafts of incense after having been summoned by the peeling of tower bells a current phenomenon. Awe has been reduced to the chipmunks chuckling and chortling over “Mommy Kissing Santa Claus Underneath the Christmas Tree Last Night.”

One of my liberated daughters suggests that had the visitors to the manger been Three Wise Women, they would have arrived on time because they would not have been too proud to ask for directions. They would have helped deliver the baby and thoroughly cleaned the stable, made casserole, and brought practical gifts (complete with store receipts for possible post-manger product exchange!). As the gentler of the gender divide, cat fights and Ms. London of Abhu Graib notwithstanding, there would be Peace on Earth and goodwill towards all! Levity is very appropriate for the season.

Those of us self-appointed guardians of the congregational spirit are quick to point out that the word “Christmas” signifies the “Christ Mass,” not a historical or even a mythological retelling of the Jesus story. Bacchus was the god of wine in ancient Rome whose late December, or winter solstice celebration, was co-opted by the early Christians to celebrate the child Christ’s birthday. When the politically astute Constantine gave the widespread religion his imperial imprimatur, Dec. 25 became a date of note. This was, however, not universal. Strain of the Alexandrian tradition celebrate Christmas during the vernal equinox in the onset of Spring, right along with Easter, since birthing and being reborn (risen from the dead) constituted the same reality. In fact, the Eucharist was the ultimate Christ Mass symbol, so in a sense, Christmas was celebrated daily in the reign of Christendom.

The world of Christendom, of course, is long gone, save that some sophisticated brethren and sistern want to bring it back in guises like “intelligent design” into the Science curriculum, and prayer in the classroom, presumably to promote a higher sense of secular morality in a world gone corrupt. The question we must pose to reclaim the human wisdom enshrined in the religious language of a bygone era is, what is distinctively human that is being affirmed and celebrated by the Christmas story.

There are two strains within Christendom that has dialectically defined the tradition’s self-understanding. One is “Creation spirituality.” Life is originally good at creation (cosmic and individual) but that we homo sapiens generally muck it up, abuse our fellows, and misuse our environment. The other goes by “salvation (redemption) history,” which grovel over our profound depravity. Not only are we so mired from the beginning, we actively make matters worst, so we need some saving. Christendom has been unnecessarily split in the dichotomy between forces focused on the created order versus folks preoccupied with personal salvation.

One of the virtues recognized in our school’s character education is the word forgiveness. My class learned the word’s etymology, “fore give,” or “being given for.” Forgiveness is less a feeling of being sorry for past action than it is taking the wholeness of one’s being and injecting it freely into the future. The Christmas story is rather simple: Life in its entirety is good. What has already transpired is done and gone. One can embrace the full uniqueness of one’s finitude. Today carries the freshness of having the freedom to decide. Life can be recreated again. Faith. Love. Hope. From the manger to the empty tomb, human existence in all its broken-ness and spilled-out-ness,nevertheless, receives the awesome and mysterious cosmic stamp of approval: YES to life. L’chaim, toasts the Semitic world, a covenantal wonderstanding common to Moslems, Christians. and Jews!

For the contemporary ear, one of my mentors offers this poetic rendition:

“nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;

therefore, we must be saved by hope.

nothing which is true or beautiful or good

makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;

therefore, we must be saved by faith.

nothing we do, however virtuous,

can be accomplished alone;

therefore, we are saved by love.

no virtuous act is as virtuous

from the standpoint of our friend or foe

as it is from our standpoint.

therefore, we must be saved

by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

May we, in the midst of the raucous Bacchanalian merriment of this season, hear ourselves “fore given” again. Then, perhaps, forgiveness will color our civic behavior and public policies for the morrow.

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Vergara is a Social Studies 6th grade teacher at San Vicente Elementary School

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