In Thomas Moore’s The Soul of Christmas, a book written for Christians and non-Christians alike, he writes: “Christmas is a transformation of the soul, but to get to that point you have to appreciate the story of Christmas at a deep level. You have to appreciate the importance and power of metaphor and levels of meaning. You have to tell the story of Jesus’s birth again and again until you finally see that it is as much about you as it is about any community of followers. It’s all about the mystery by which you become a real person rather than part of the crowd. A real child is born within you.” And it is for this reason—Christmas being an invitation into transformation and liminality—that I hope to take its principles and metaphors into the next year… I want to say "yes," like Mary, to the improbable, unexpected mystery that is occurring inside of me… What was it like to be Mary? She had lived an honorable, blameless life—following the Jewish laws and customs of the day—only to find out that she was pregnant with a child who didn’t belong to the man to whom she was betrothed, an offense that was punishable by death. Can you imagine? The humiliation. The shame. The confusion. The feeling that she had tried to live her life the right way and yet it was still imploding. And yet, it was her faithful “yes” that led to her active participation in the Incarnation. Thomas Merton writes: “Lady Mary, you whose ‘yes’ opened the door to our salvation, show us how we can say ‘yes’ without reservations. Teach us to wait, as we hang in the balance of the past and the possible. Let us make loving choices as you did, acquiescing freely in God’s plan for us.” Transformation longs to unfold within. Our bodies groan for a divine miracle to be birthed by our lives. But am I saying “yes” to the improbable, unexpected mysteries that are unfolding within me, or am I resistant to transformation? Dorothy Day writes: “A pregnant woman…lives in such a garment of silence, and it is as though she were listening to hear the stir of life within her. One always hears that stirring compared to the rustling of a bird in the hand. But the intentness with which one awaits such stirring is like nothing so much as a blanket of silence.” Am I listening to hear the stir of life within?
I want to adapt gracefully to change, like Joseph, and listen to what might be taking place at a deeper level… What was it like to be Joseph? Change fell upon him, and he could legally kill his wife, leave her, or enter into the the journey with her. He chose to believe the divine dream he received and enter into the journey. Isn’t this the great call of our existence: to enter into the journey that is mysteriously unfolding in our lives, a journey that will inevitably involve the element of change? It was his openness to an unexpected plan—a turn of events—that led to his awareness of a transcendent purpose and meaningful mission that was unfolding. Am I approaching reality with an openness toward an unexpected plan?
I want to enter into a mysterious journey, like the shepherds and wisemen, where I find beauty unfolding in brokenness… What was it like to be the shepherds and the wisemen? They were witnesses of such angelic and cosmic forces yet found themselves, at the end of their journey, kneeling not before a king in the way they might’ve expected him to appear, but a baby—a human—born of an unlikely couple in the throes of an oppressed system, lying in something so lowly as a manger. In his book Closer Than Close, Dave Hickman writes that Christmas demonstrates how infinity was dwindled to infancy, how God was so big that He was willing to become that small. Part of standing in awe and wonder of God’s magnitude, it seems, is not only basking in something so wondrous as a starry sky or an ocean’s expanse or a mountainous terrain, but also recognizing how small He is willing to become—as He enters into the brokenness of our lives just as He entered into a broken world at Christmas. This quote by theologian Ronald Rolheiser has spoken wonders to me during this Advent season of waiting and soulful groaning: “God's power is never the power of a muscle, a speed, a physical attractiveness, a brilliance, or a grace which as the contemporary expression has it, blows you away and makes you say, 'Yes, there is a God!' The world's power tries to work that way. God's power, though, is more muted, more helpless, more shamed, more marginalized, but it lies at a deeper level at an ultimate base of things and will, in the end, gently have its final say…” "So what does God's power look like? If you have ever dreamed a dream and found that every effort you made was hopeless and that your dream could never be realized; if you have have cried tears and felt shame at your own inadequacy, then you have felt how God is in this world. If you've ever been shamed in your enthusiasm or approach and not given a chance to explain yourself; if you've ever been cursed for your goodness or effort by people who misunderstood you and you were powerless to make them see things in your way, then you have felt how God is in this world. If you've ever tried to make yourself attractive to someone and were incapable of it; if you've ever loved someone and wanted desperately to somehow make him or her notice you and found yourself helplessly unable to do so, you have felt how God is in this world. If you've ever felt yourself aging...and powerless to turn back the clock; if you've ever felt the world slipping away from you as you grow older and even more marginalized, then you've felt how God is in this world. If you've ever felt like a minority of one before a group hysteria of a crowd gone mad, if you've ever felt firsthand the sick evil of being violated, abused, or taken advantage of, then you've felt how God is in this world—and how Jesus felt in his last breaths."
I want to carry with me the perspective that it is in the messiness, pain, and gray areas of this existence that hope and new stories and life are born… What was it like to be the Jewish people during the life of Christ? Could there be anything more messy, more provocative than a God-man being born in something as lowly as a manger and dying on something so horrific as a cross? Peter Rollins says that just as punk music ruptured everything that we thought about music, Christ’s arrival ruptured everything that the people of that day thought about religion. “Christ crucified blows up all of our ideas of how the universe works because the cross means that you are cursed by God, that you are a nobody,” Rollins said in a recent Robcast. “The idea that God could be crucified was like a square triangle…The ultimate Christology is that the crucifixion defies all meaning.” No matter how you feel about the person of Jesus, it’s impossible to deny that the stories we know about him all seem to unfold in the mysterious gray of unknowing. Born in a stable. Accused of being a liar and a drunkard and a heretic. Seen with a Samaritan woman. Washed the feet of a bunch of ragamuffin vagabonds. Crucified on a cross. Maybe the messiness, pain, and gray areas of our lives are the spaces where real transformation takes place. Maybe the complexities within ourselves are in fact gateways into a new paradigm of seeing the world—of becoming more fully alive. Maybe our frailties and weaknesses are in fact seeds for us to willfully soil and water so that something transcending can grow and bloom. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown, in his depressed and anxious state, hears the Christmas story and then walks out into the wintry air with a contented smile. He stands beneath a starry sky, as if to channel his inner mystic, tapping into a transcendent peace and joy, then vows to make something beautiful—in this case, decorating the most pathetic of all Christmas trees. The Christmas story inspires us to find joy and peace despite our brokenness and perhaps turn our brokenness into something beautiful.
I want to allow the birth of my own love story—one that is rooted in the reality of Emmanuel—to evolve… Not only did God become human through the person of Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us—but He also partnered with humans for his incomprehensible love to be revealed. Through Mary. Through Joseph. Through a seemingly meaningless character like the innkeeper.
So what does this mean? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what it means. But it seems that God—or whatever metaphor you choose to use for the divine (energy, the universe, the unspeakable forces at play, etc.)—longs to do a work in us and through us. He is not some distant being, sitting on His throne and shaking His finger at us every time that we mess up. He became flesh. Born in something so lowly as a manger. Not because He had to. Because He wanted to. Because He wanted to affirm our worth. He wanted us to know that at the core of our beings is love.
I don’t doubt that God could’ve painted his love across the sky and simply said something like “I am with you,” but instead we read that the divine entered into this world, into our brokenness, and was born into humility. The Biblical narrative seems to be an unfolding story about a people whose metaphor for the divine is constantly expanding based on an unfailing love that is always unfolding. And I guess that’s what I find most beautiful about Christmas—it is yet another demonstration of this ever-expanding love.
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a love story—the birth of the Beloved. But the great challenge of the spiritual life, it seems, is to adopt this love story as our own—that we, too, are the Beloved.
That we are enough.
That we are whole.
That we are not alone.
Thomas Merton writes: “Not only do we celebrate Christmas to recall to mind the consoling fact that He is our Redeemer…There is much more: He is born in Bethlehem in order that He may be born in us…He is born Son of Man in order that we may be born sons of God, our souls being Bethlehems in which He is born ‘for us.’”
By Stephen Copeland
This story was first published on copelandwrites.com.