the people at UP TV asked a bunch of poor kids what they wanted for Christmas. The answers were basically the things most kids, poor or rich, probably want: xBox, Barbie Dream House, computer. Then they were asked what they thought their parents wanted for Christmas. Guesses included a ring, a television, a watch. Thus far this is boring and we are even bored writing it. But then the bastards at UPTV trotted out each kid’s dream gift. And their dream gift for their parents. You know where this is going, don’t you? And then they were told they could only pick one. . . .
What in the love of all that is Christmas Spirit Holy is this shit?? Oh, to feel the “pride” of being poor enough that you have to choose between you getting a gift or your parent getting a gift. Oh, to feel the joy of “sacrifice” in a Christmas season where you’re from a family poor enough that many of these kids don’t actually have Christmas trees to put their nonexistent gifts under. Oh, to get to be a puppet of some marketing shill at a tenth-rate television network that wanted to prove some heartwarming point about the nobility of the poor. It’s a Christmas miracle!
The kids likely did learn one valuable Christmas lesson from all this, which is that if you are poor in America you are beholden to craven assholes and wannabe do-gooders like these people and we wouldn’t blame you one bit if you want to just burn it all down. – Snipy – “Here Is Your Heartwarming Christmas Tale Of Awful People Manipulating Poor Children”, Wonkette, December 22, 2015
The year or two after my Dad retired as a teacher, he did substitute teaching at a neighboring school district. At Christmas time, 1988, he was working at an elementary school. The lesson plan he worked with over the couple days was simple enough: the kids had to write a few paragraphs about what they wanted for Christmas. How A Christmas Story of the teacher!
At the end of the day, driving Dad back home, he looked very serious. I asked him if something was wrong. He told me about the assignment and one of the little themes he had to read and grade. One child, now grown and probably a parent, had written that he or she (I can’t remember) wanted a Christmas tree and lights and Mom and Dad not to fight and something in his or her stocking. This was the year, I think, of one of those mad-rush children’s plushes, Tickle-Me Elmo or some such nonsense. Most of the kids has said that’s what they wanted. Dad was visibly upset telling me about this. It was clear he wanted to do something for this young child but knew he couldn’t. It’s haunted me to this day.
The marvelously crass and profane Wonkette tells us the tale of one attempt to address poverty at Christmas. As you can read above, there’s nothing like forcing children who live in poverty to choose between a present for themselves and a present for their parents. I’m thinking even Ebeneezer Scrooge would call out, “Here here! Stop this!” were he around.
We in the Christian churches spend quite a bit of time each year reminding people that Christmas isn’t about presents. And then we all go about our merry way buying gifts, attending parties, and carrying on on social media about food and how big our trees are and the lights on the houses in the neighborhood, as if not a word was spoken. And please understand I am most definitely implicating myself in all this. Our many lessons about Christmas in our consumer culture bear all the hallmarks of noblesse oblige, telling others how to order their lives at the holidays while going about our merry way as if we have said nothing.
Oh, but our Angel Trees! Our Toys For Tot drives! Winter coats and hats and gloves and on and on that we collect, we distribute, then laud ourselves with news stories in local and denominational papers! Look at us being Christians at Christmas!
Why in the world would anyone listen to a church captured by our consumer culture? What lesson about this event do we have to offer a world that is long past caring about self-sacrifice, especially when we in our churches – which always have a “Hanging Of The Greens” service in which we celebrate our pretty our sanctuaries are decorated; filled with middle-class folks in happy moods at this happy time of year – have no idea about the millions who walk unseen and unheard, treated as recipients of our largess rather than human beings trapped in cycles of poverty made worse by our ignorance of our role in it all.
What happened on UP TV is no different from those toy drives, angel trees, hat and coat drives, and all the other Christmas season “mission projects” that only serve to insulate most of us from the reality of socioeconomic hardship at Christmas. We do our part without it ever hurting our bank accounts or credit ratings; what more should we do?
Perhaps – and I’m just thinking out loud here – perhaps we should stop preaching about “light” and baby Jesus all cute and cuddly. Maybe, just maybe, we should remember that the Incarnation is the event of the Day: God made human and living among us. As the Fourth Gospel says very clearly, he came to his own and his own did not receive him. Imagine. God gave us a gift and we didn’t receive it because we were too busy baking cookies for the office party or shopping for that perfect bottle of wine for the boss or waiting in line at some store for some present that will spend the bulk of its material life stashed in a closet, wind up on a Thrift Store shelf, then rot in a landfill.
Were we in the churches really serious about Christmas, perhaps like Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of the story we would keep Christmas all year. We would live with the faith of the Incarnation, receive the gift on offer in the Incarnation of the Son of God, and offer it to others all year long in all sorts of ways. We would do more than whine about consumerism but actively subvert it through our local and national church investment portfolios. We would do more than carry on about poverty but, along with seeking to alleviate its worst effects, also work to end it through systemic change. We might also spend time listening to the stories of poor children who only want a tree and some lights at Christmas, rather than tell them what they can and can’t do with the only chance they may have in their young lives to choose a present.
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:17-20
So it’s Christmas. The day for which all the craziness and preparation, the shopping and baking, the cards and gifts, the visits and kindnesses have been about. The beginning of twelve days in the Church’s calendar in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus, remember his circumcision and the appearance of prophets and seers; we hear the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, teaching the teachers. “Christmas” as a church season doesn’t end until “Twelfth Night”, with the coming of Epiphany and the celebration of the arrival of the Magi.
On Christmas Day, the shepherds are given information about “Good News” which shall be to all people. Yet, that “Good News” is little more than a birth announcement. What’s more, the baby, whom the angel declares will be called the Son of the Most High, a King whose Kingdom shall have no end, is to be found in a manger. That’s the “sign” that what the angel has said is true – a baby whose family is so poor they can’t afford a proper room; a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a cow’s feeding trough. After seeing what they’ve been told to see, St. Luke tells us that the shepherds returned, praising God for what they had seen and heard as it had been told to them.
In one of his early, post-World War II books, French Christian scholar Jacques Ellul wrote that ours was becoming a world ever more ruled by “facts”; indeed, he said that people were becoming enslaved to “the Moloch of fact”. Facts in and of themselves, Ellul insisted, are uninteresting. They tell us nothing. Which is precisely why those in power love them so; to call something “a fact” seems, in our world idolizing such a horrid god, unarguable. Even now we hear, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. No one is entitled to their own facts.” Yet, Ellul insisted, facts are precisely what people make them to be. Manipulated by those in power, they become more than tools. They are weapons of control, so defined as to be impossible to deny.
Except, of course, facts are unimportant things. Meaningless in and for themselves precisely because they are no more than events in time, whatever meaning they might or might not have only exists because human beings give them meaning. Whether it’s weather, a law has been broken, the status and place of social realities in human lives, or the birth of a child, these events have no meaning in and for themselves. Their only meaning comes from what we human beings give them.
The birth of a child is certainly meaningful for the parents and other relatives. For the shepherds, part of a people waiting and waiting until they had grown old and tired in waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the “Good News for all people” certainly heralded the coming of the Messiah. Which is precisely what the angel says. Yet, then the Messiah tells the shepherds the Messiah is a new-born baby, lying in a manger wrapped in rags. Even with the Heavenly Host appearing, glorifying God in song and saying, the shepherds agree they just have to go see what the heck all the fuss is about.
Sure enough, right where the angel said, there’s a baby. It’s wrapped in swaddling cloths. It’s lying in a manger. It must, indeed, be the Messiah. Doing their obeisance, they return to their fields. Along the way, however, they tell everyone they meet about the angel’s message, about the song from heaven, and most of all about the baby and who he is. Mary, even with all she had been through, wasn’t quite sure what the fuss was about, but rather than push the issue, she held these things quietly. Any mother would, I suppose. These are moments to which any Mother would return when a child does something wonderful and strange.
See, a poor family giving birth in a barn probably wasn’t exactly an unusual occurrence at that time. The fact there was a barn might well have been something of a miracle, let alone some cloths in which to wrap the child and a manger filled with hay as a soft bed in which to lie. Had the angel not appeared to the shepherds, they would have returned to the barn that day or the next, found the family and baby there, and chased them away as interlopers, possibly thieves. Using a baby as an excuse would have been a good ruse, too.
The shepherd did hear the angel’s words. They did hear the Heavenly Host singing praises to God. The father, mother, and child were right where the angel said they would be. This was not another poverty-stricken family, using a baby as an excuse to steal a lamb or a calf for food. The angel was clear. This baby, lying in this manger, wrapped in these cloths, was no less than the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of the Most High, the King whose Kingdom would have no end. Without that information, the shepherds would have had no way of understanding what it was they were seeing, or who it was they were encountering.
Facts do not speak for themselves. They are Moloch, idols that can be used by those who control them for whatever purposes they wish. In this case, however, the fact of the birth of the baby Jesus was wholly in control of the God of Israel. Telling of the birth, the promise of the freedom that lay sleeping in that stable, that was something that made those who heard the shepherds “amazed” at what those dirty old men were saying. Amazed, yes, because who could imagine the Messiah entering the world in such a way? Yet, there was no other way to understand and interpret it. Not because of the shepherd. Certainly not because of the scene itself, no matter how much syrup we have poured over the scene over the centuries. No, it was the angel, the announcement of “Good News”, of gospel for all people, that’s what made all the difference. That message interpreted the facts, gave an understanding to what otherwise might have been taken as a nothing, just another baby born to another poor family.
My wish for all of you and each of you this Christmas Day is that you go forth, proclaiming all that you have heard and seen this day, praising God for all God has done. Leave people amazed so they, too, will come to the stable and really see the tiny baby, the Messiah, the King whose Kingdom will have no end.
The two officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, had no chance to defend themselves and might not have even seen their assailant, Bratton said.
The shooter, identified by police as 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, approached the patrol car at 2:47 p.m., took a shooter’s stance, and fired several shots through the passenger side front window, the commissioner said during a news conference at Woodhull Medical Center. Both officers were struck in the head.
After firing on the officers, Brinsley ran into a nearby subway station and turned his weapon on himself, Bratton said. Brinsley died from the wound. Police recovered a silver 9mm handgun at the scene.
Investigators believe the gunman posted a threatening message on a social media account before the shooting, according to one law enforcement source. “They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs,” said the post on Instagram, which was accompanied by a photo of a silver handgun. – Jonathan Dienst, “Gunman ‘Assassinates’ 2 NYPD Officers, Kills Self”, nbcwashington.com, Dec. 21, 2014
And so, more people die. Two officers, sitting in their patrol car, with no chance to defend themselves, gunned down in a planned attack by a man too cowardly to face the consequences of his crime. Two families without husbands, brothers, fathers, sons just days before Christmas.
Some might say, “You called cops racists. How dare you decry their murders as if you cared!” Which completely misses the point. Since events in Ferguson, MO, and even before that, I recognized and have spoken out against what I see as the systematic use of police to control the social and racial status quo. ‘Twas ever thus, and shouldn’t be all that surprising given our history, and the history of the use of police forces by the powers that be.
That does not mean that the lives of any particular officers are of less value than the lives of the victims in Ferguson, MO or anywhere else. Indeed, a horrible crime like this highlights just how precious all our lives are. This crime demonstrates how our institutions and systems of Administration and control have become so blatant and unafraid of accountability in their use of force and violence that innocent people, whether police officer or citizen, of whatever race, suddenly no longer become human. Instead, they become targets of rage and hatred, objects to be eliminated because they represent those institutions rather than the people who they are, individuals with specific lives and loves, all gone in a moment of terror.
This also demonstrates the work all of us have to do, not only addressing police on civilian violence; also, we need to address those communities that are systematically targeted by the police, try to get them to vent their anger in constructive ways. Those who rage is overwhelming, who become committed to violence are as much a part of the problem as are officers who beat, shoot, and choke-hold persons, regardless of guilt or innocence. This is a task for our churches and synagogues and mosques. This is a task for city Administrators, for Ward representatives and City Council members. This is a task for each one of us to recognize the ways violence begets violence, leaving nothing but a trail of dead bodies, broken lives, and yet more animosity, hatred, suspicion, and ultimately more death in its wake.
I pray for the families of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, those left behind, full of anger and confusion and a sadness too deep for words. I pray for the family of the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, whose death by his own hand will leave more questions than answers despite a trail of very public pronouncements on social media. I pray for the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, that it not succumb to fear or anger. I pray for the New York City Police Department, that it not succumb to rage, fear, and violence.
Most of all, I pray for each one of us looking on, this final Sunday of Advent, four days before Christmas, that we might still cling to the faith and the hope that carry us through this season of waiting. I pray that the promise of peace, of salvation, of liberation, will continue to live in our hearts. Most of all, I pray for each of us and all of us that the light that cannot be overcome by the darkness – even the darkness of death – will mean just a little bit more to use this year as each of us and all of us pray for an end to the cycle of violence, an end to the death and hatred. If ever we needed to believe in a Deliverer, a Wonderful Counselor, an Almighty God, the Prince of Peace, it’s right now.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. – Luke 2:25-26
All over I’m seeing signs that Christmas is already here. People are posting their Christmas posts on their blogs. Post-Christmas sales are being advertised. Both the world and the church seem to be rushing toward Bethlehem without considering that the trip takes time for a reason. Just as we all tend to rush through Holy Week, and try as hard as we can to ignore Good Friday, just so we can get to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection, so, too, we ignore Advent as much as possible. We sing Christmas hymns the first Sunday in Advent. We decorate our sanctuaries with Hanging of the Greens services. We have Nativity scenes with the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, instead of a scene of Joseph and a very pregnant Mary on their way to Bethlehem.
This time of preparation is necessary. Like Simeon, we have been promised something special – to see the Messiah. Simeon, however, grew old waiting, having been told he wouldn’t die until that moment happened. He didn’t despair, however; he kept waiting, growing old and gray, wondering which day would be that day. His faith, however, gave him the power to wait, even as his family and friends, perhaps, died around him, or moved away. Perhaps his grandchildren thought him senile, blabbing about not dying until he saw the Messiah.
No one likes to wait. Especially for Christmas. We decorate our houses, wrap our presents and put them under the tree, we watch those TV Christmas specials over and over and over until we memorize every line, every nuance. We bake cookies and pies, then have to bake more because in our haste to get to Christmas we gorge ourselves on sweet treats, rather than wait with patience for the only gift that matters.
We don’t want to wait. Advent, like Lent, is a pain in the butt. “Let’s just get there,” we say.
Simeon had to wait. He waited a longer lifetime than he might have preferred. Mary had to wait. Mary to wait and travel, wondering what would await her in Bethlehem, wondering if the village midwives would help an unmarried woman give birth. The world had to wait, a people living in darkness were waiting for a light, a single light the darkness could not overcome. The people of Israel had been promised a Messiah, a deliverer from the line of David. That, of course, meant a King, perhaps even a warrior King who would not only toss the Romans out, but unseat the Herodians, puppets of Rome and usurpers of the rightful royal line. While they waited and prayed, they saw a world filled with evil and sin. There seemed no end, no reason to hope other than ancient promises and a string of dead self-proclaimed Messiah’s hanging on Roman crosstrees or simply cut down by sword and spear.
St. Paul said that Jesus came “in the fullness of time”. That is, Jesus came at just the right time. Not a day, week, or month sooner or later. Israel had waited. The people, suffering under a yoke of sin waited. Mary and Joseph, travelling a hard road made all the more hard by Mary being very pregnant, had to wait. We, too, must wait. We must wait and pray, like Simeon, trusting that day will come when the promise, made so long before, will be fulfilled. We wait, our world dark, filled with no reason at all for hope; no sign that God is even listening. As DMX says, “I’m ready to meet him,” because there’s nothing left in his world to which to cling. Until we have reached that point, until we are able to make clear all the reasons we are ready to meet him – despair for the hatred, the killing, the violence, the sin, our own weakness, our own complicity in the brokenness of Creation . . . until we have reached that point, we aren’t ready to meet him. We haven’t traveled the hard road of Advent; haven’t waited as Simeon did. We would rather rush to the stable and see the beautiful baby boy without all that muss and fuss.
Christmas, however, is Thursday. Today is Saturday. So, we wait. And pray. And believe that God’s promise to us and the world will come when the time is right, not a minute too soon, most certainly not a minute too late.
Back in 2009, I wrote four Advent posts about Christmases past that lived in my memory for a variety of reasons. I wanted to revisit one in particular because the central theme of that particular story was realizing that change was coming. And it came to my attention, giving permission to our older daughter to attend a midnight movie premiere, that change is coming soon. Moriah is, after all, a high school senior. A year from now, our whole family situation will be different. Somehow, without even noticing it, time’s passed, our kids are growing up, and things are going to be changing.
I do want to quote the first paragraph from that original post, because it captures a moment in my life that was real, that continues to live with me, coloring so much of how I feel about family, about holidays, about being with those I love.
I remember the exact moment that I realized this would be the last Christmas like all the previous ones I remembered. On Christmas Eve, it was tradition in our house to gather, my father would read the birth narrative from Luke out of the Bible his grandmother gave him, we’d sing a carol, and then head off to bed. We did all but the heading off, and my mother asked my oldest sister to come to the kitchen and help her with some pies she was baking. As my sister walked off through the dining room, I remember very distinctly thinking to myself, “She’s not gonna be here any more.” She was getting married just a few short weeks later, in mid-January, 1977. It hit me, at that moment, that Christmas was not going to be the same ever again.
I want to skip ahead a bit in that original post. For some reason, some things that gave personal context, why that thought at that moment was so powerful, I put a bit far down.
Being the youngest of five children, the feeling of being surrounded by people on holidays was so normal that, when I listened to other people talk about sparse tables and only a few people, I really couldn’t imagine what it might be like. Ours was a large, talkative, boisterous family. We laughed a lot, we yelled a lot, we took turns being the center of attention – and giving it as well. Most of all, though, was this sense of permanence, especially on holidays like Thanksgiving, and Easter. Christmas, though, had that extra special ingredient – it was a day just for us, for family. Attempting to recapture the emotional sea in which we lived as children is almost impossible, yet I do know that there was a great deal of comfort, for me as the youngest, being surrounded by this horde of loud, garrulous people, all of whom were my family, and all of whom were particularly amazing each in his or her own way. Since I had only turned 11 a month before, I had no sense of there being anything particularly special about me – except, of course, that I was expected to do well in school and play a musical instrument of one sort or another – so knowing, or at least feeling, that these people, with their abilities in music and school, in the swimming pool and track field, at home to make us all laugh – it was really quite amazing.
My oldest sister, in particular, was one to whom I always looked up. At the end of her first semester of college, my father allowed me to go with him when he picked her up (I was in 3rd grade, and staying out so late on a school night was quite a privilege). When we arrived at SUNY Brockport, and went up the elevator in her dorm – this was the early ’70’s, and college dorms were all those soulless tower blocks – she wasn’t in her room. When we found her, down the hall in a friend’s room, her friends all cooed and ahhed over her baby brother. She did something then I have never forgotten; she picked me up and she hugged me and she kissed me on the cheek. It may have been the last time she ever did that. All I know for certain is I have never forgotten it, and I have loved her for it ever since.
On that Christmas Eve, three years later, as she walked to the kitchen to help our mother with some pies, and the rest of us went to bed (well, except for my older sister, also in college, who stayed downstairs), I knew that I had to hold all the things from that particular Christmas season as close as possible. No Christmas would ever be like this one again.
I was right five years ago: No Christmas would ever be like that one. Like Mary, I kept all those things and pondered them in my heart. I’ve had great Christmases since; I’ve had Christmases that have been . . . well, let’s just say less than spectacular. I have never, however, had a Christmas like the ones we had before that last one all five of us were together, younger, and things like this littered our house at Christmas time. Surely your family had one or two, right?
The life my children has lived is so different from my own experience. They have moved around a lot; Moriah is in her fourth school district. Old friends have faded as new ones have entered her life. I do know that one thing that has helped her cope with the constant changes due to our peripatetic life have been our holiday traditions. She wasn’t all that enthused when we went to my parents’s house last Christmas, although she ended up having a good time. It wasn’t personal. It was outside her regular, expected, holiday rituals that help shape her world and life, root it in a way living in the same place and space cannot for her. And that, friends, I understand. Yet, without her thinking about it too much, perhaps this year, perhaps sometime during 2015, it will hit her like a bolt out of the blue that things will never be the same. The rituals and routines that helped create a sense of solidity in the midst of so much change will be gone. When that happens, it’s a bit like losing your innocence.
I’ve chatted with one or two of my childhood friends who talk about how comforting it is for them to know there are people to whom they can turn who they have known since kindergarten. I’m happy for them, but that isn’t our life. It certainly isn’t Moriah’s or Miriam’s. We’ve tried as hard as we can to create within our home space for safety, ritual, and a special bond among us. Yet, changes are coming, sooner and faster than anyone expects or probably wants.
So here’s to change. To growing up, in all its guises and varieties. To family rituals and routines. And to their endings as we go about the business of living, struggling to keep a semblance of normalcy amid a lifetime of change. To be a child, to be thoughtless about the way life doesn’t change – that’s a privilege, really. It’s a special thing to have in one’s life the house in which one grew up, filled with the ghosts of nearly a half-century of living, loving, fighting, secrets, cats and dogs. It is yet another thing onto which I hold tight, knowing those are – mostly – friendly ghosts who would remind me that being me in my family was more than happy, but something very special. When that started to change when I was only eleven, I made sure I held on tight. Now, going back to that house . . . I don’t have to think about years, because I’m surrounded by them.