Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Merry Ho-Ho and Home Decorating

The Globe's Style Counsel this morning landed in my inbox with some lovely Santa-inspired temptations -- Open-concept kitchens have spawned a survival-of-the-most-stylish competition for tools of the trade -- it starts off.

It goes on to describe the product -- the Circle Knife with Board is so perfect that we'd even go out on a limb by calling it the Vitruvian Man of cooking utensils. The possibilities are endless, as nuts, chocolate and fine herbs all surrender to the blade. And the thick beech wood board shows off proper proportions by cradling the knife beautifully when not in use.

At $149- Santa will be tossing them down chimneys with gay abandon!

The Santa thing is a bit of a conundrum for Christians. While you don't want the emphasis on it, you can't exactly shrug off the red-clad old gent -- try explaining the true mystery of God becoming human, while denying that reindeer can fly or that a fat old man can deliver a billion presents in a night.

I found out the hard way. Two years ago, my son was 10 and asked The Question -- whether Santa was real. I thought he already knew/suspected and was merely looking for confirmation, but when I told him the truth (adding the true St. Nick origins to soften the blow) he did not react well -- bursting into tears and running to his room.

I should have known better. The previous year, after I told him his Christmas list was too expensive, he shrugged it off with a "Why worry? Santa's paying." A lie came quickly to my lips: Well, Santa has financial limitations, and parents have to top things up with a check made out to the North Pole workshop.

Which kinda brings me back to the style counsel email -- the quick answer is do the ka-ching thing and hope, like my son did, that someone else is paying (a benefactor with an arsenal of ATM-like qualities perhaps).

It's made me think about the desire for mystery -- we all want to inspire our children and each other with true beneficence and there's nothing quite like the delight on a child's face when they get a letter from Santa (as my 6-year-old did the other day -- she's so excited, she's already planning what kind of special repast to leave out for him).

It's this promise of wonder in exchange for the buying and delivering of delight that motivates much of our Christmas shopping. At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, it's like candy -- tastes good for a bit, but has absolutely no nutritional value. And the post-sugar letdown is not so magical.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Creche, the Witness, and Action Figures

While putting up the Nativity scene on the mantel, I'm reminded of an exchange I had with my son Aidan when he was about six. I had told him to clean up his room, and put the "dolls" away. He responded, predictably, with a gasp: "Those aren't dolls, Mummy."

Well what are they if not dolls, I asked. They have a head, legs, arms, a body.

"They're action figures," he replied, indignant that I didn't know.

And so it is with the Creche -- these are not dolls, they are "action figures" and they are acting out the greatest, most dramatic story we could ever be told.

As the kids put up the nativity scene, I tell them the story, so they can get the sequence right. Chronology is very important because we are, after all, a historic faith. God acts in time and space, he acts in our lives, but does so in an ordered sequence of time. And it's important that children get a sense of how God intersects -- and creates -- time and space.

And so we talk about the shepherds watching over the sheep and being totally surprised by this sudden appearance of an angel. And how it took the Wise Men 2 years to get to Bethlehem. My son thinks it's pretty cool that they took so long walking those camels right across the desert, carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh.

Ironically, it's the historical perspective that makes our faith vital and fresh. Chagall has this sense in his art, as the divine characters swoop down into the human realm, elevating the profane to a sublime condition by its brush with the sacred.

History helps us understand where we've come from, and give an inkling of where we might be going. That's what makes for identity.

The creche and its "action figures" is one concrete way of expressing the sequence -- the birth, the shepherd witness, the coming of the Magi -- that occurs within the greater sequence -- Creation, Incarnation and Resurrrection.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Witness to the Light

My friend Flavia found such a lovely poetic translation of the Incarnation according to John's gospel that I thought I would post it here:
A man came, sent by God.
His name was John.
He came as a witness,
As a witness to speak for the light,
So that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light
Only a witness to speak for the light.
The Word was the true light
That enlightens all men;
And he was coming into the world.

This is appropriate right now during Advent, while we keep a darkened vigil for the coming of the real Light. I love Advent, representing a special time of waiting for Jesus' birth. Since it is supposed to be dark, at one time weddings were prohibited during the season.

Last night, we lit the last Advent candle. It's interesting that the wreath has its roots in pre-Christian practices of Europe when people sought the return of the sun by lighting candles placed on a cartwheel decorated with evergreen. For them, as for Christians later, the circle was to represent eternal life.

This is a great time for us as parents to witness to our children. In that vein, my intention was to have meaningful discussions with them about darkness and light. And to play a little What If? game -- What if Jesus was never born, or came to earth? What if God never was? Where would we be right now?

Problem is we never get that far in the discussion -- by Sunday nights, they're too much in the thick of sibling discontent, though I have at least discovered a way to keep them from glaring at each other during the reading of Luke's gospel account -- I get one of them to read.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Holy Week Countdown

Last Sunday in Advent. Today we have the Christmas pageant, when all the children will restlessly tug at their home-made costumes -- angels in pink and lavender and stable animals that include assorted jungle creatures. Some children sing off key, others shout, but they do it so enthusiastically.

Tonight we have our Parish dinner which brings our parish together once a year, flung out in all parts of the city as it is.

Then afterward we will light our Advent wreath for the last time and my kids will fight over who gets to light which candle, then they'll try to outdo each other extinguishing the flames with their thumb and forefinger -- inevitably someone gets burned -- and I read the last portion of Luke's gospel while they fidget. Whoever said ritual sinks in at some level I sure hope is right.

This week, we'll put up the tree. Since the outdoor electrical outlet is not working, we're foregoing the outside lights. I've never liked fiddling with them anyway.

Besides, there's someone around the corner from us who is making up for our dearth of exterior illumination. This family has mastered the art of loud, tacky and cheap -- which is wonderful in its plastic way. While Santa (a couple of them, in fact) cavort madly down the banister rail, and a string of multi-coloured lights rim the front yard and the 6-foot reindeers, the whole of it surrounds a 10-foot manger scene with plastic interior-lit Mary and Joseph around the manger with Jesus. There's even a donkey.

There is NO WAY you can ignore this utterly tasteless spectacle -- a little like the street corner evangelizer who may or may not be an outpatient of the psych ward but who is nonetheless shouting out that Jesus is Lord! And every year, I look forward to seeing it put out -- Christmas in our neighbourhood wouldn't be the same without it.

These are exactly the bizarre and grotesque touches so common in Flannery O'Connor's work, who said you must shout so they hear.

May we all be so enlightened.

Lights Out on Christmas

Today's the last Sunday in Advent, and .... it's also the last Sunday before New Year's that some churches in the US will open on Sunday. While there's even been talk in the secular press about this, the mixed reactions of Christians surprise me. Many I've spoken to, even in my own church, think this is perfectly all right.

What I didn't realize before now is that many Protestant churches don't celebrate Christmas when it falls on days other than Sundays. Why this is, I have no idea. But Christmas on a Sunday forced them to decide whether they should hold services at all, because Christmas belongs to the family, right?

What gives? It's a case of the god of Family Values reigning supreme over all else, in an age of inappropriate emphasis on many things, family included.

Don't get me wrong, I love my family and would do anything to defend them. But isn't the whole point of nurturing children in the right sort of way all about the Incarnation? John 3:16 and all that?

We seem to have things a bit turned around in that case -- I thought Advent was all about keeping things dark and ratcheting up the illumination factor on Christmas. Instead, we blaze the lights through Advent and turn them out, and lock the doors, on Christmas.

Besides, if the laity is so worried about the minister not getting his day off with the family, then why not do the charitable thing, help with the service? That way, all can worship and praise the God who gave you that family in the first place and then made it possible for that family to have salvation.