Originally published on December 24, 2008.
I: HERE WE ARE. IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE – one of the times we get together – believers and unbelievers and the occasional believers – to hold hands and keep Tinkerbell alive? “Do you believe in fairies? If you do, clap!” Click your red shoes and we’ll get back to Kansas! Christmas Eve is a bit odd – full of contradictions. Is it all make-believe? Did it really happen? Do you and I really happen?
Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
II: LETTING STORIES TOUCH US AGAIN. A story … must reach us on some level to which we can respond, but a good one must also ‘stretch’ us, pull us beyond where we now are … One of the most telling aspects of this Story is the unexpectedness intruding upon the familiar. We know about kings, for example, but we do not know about kings who come as servants. We know about rulers but they don’t show up in Bethlehem in a stable. We think we know about how power works in the world but we are slow learners and are often taken by surprise when its cruel progress comes to nothing.
III: YOU CAN’T HELP BEING CAUGHT UP IN A STORY – that’s why we love them so much and why they can be scary. And if you don’t live a story the story lives you – Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, — even Desperate Housewives. We love movies and music, songs too – even the most jaundiced among us are touched by the music of Christmas – the familiar carols and the secular songs.
There’s a prayer uttered by a character Joel in Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, “God, let me be loved.” The Christmas message. “You are!” This is our story – this is our song.
The story speaks to our longing to mean something, to matter to someone. Your life is fraught with hope and wonder. What story have you been telling yourself about yourself? And what happens when the story stops or gets too painful? And what about the story the culture, the country, has been telling itself about itself? The story has shifted from The American Dream to one of scarcity and downward mobility! Some of us don’t like the story we’re in. And, there isn’t such a fine line between the sacred and the secular – especially on a night like this. This is a night to think about the awesome gift of our common humanity – a time to cross barriers of belief and origin. He belongs to everyone. The story belongs to us all.
SO, some story is being played out in you whether you know it or not. In the Christmas Story, you are the place where the story happens, where God happens. Now I know that there’s naturally a rush of protest in us when we hear these strange stories of a baby born in a stable, with a supporting caste of shepherds, angels and wisemen – yet they are pointing to something we need and in a direction we want to go. You think this story is ridiculous – how about your own story – all of us future-dead people. The claim that you matter is, at first sight, ridiculous. Remember the cry of Truman Capote’s character Joel “God, let me be loved.” The Christmas message. “You are!” This is our story – this is our song.
There are plenty of ridiculous stories to do with this season – signs of our longing, not on the level of literalism but on the level of intuition, the level of the heart.
There’s “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!” The famous response by Francis Church to a letter from an 8 year old, Virginia O’Hanlon, first published in The New York Sun in 1897. “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”
IV: THEN THERE’S IRVING BERLIN’S WHITE CHRISTMAS? – Is it true? No, of course not! Is it true? Yes, of course it is! Imagine it’s December 1941. Bing Crosby singing it on his Radio show on Christmas Eve– 17 days after Pearl Harbor. American troops – fighting in WWII – for many of them, their first away from home. A hit – it has no overt religion in it, no Baby Jesus, no manger – but it became a wartime anthem of love and longing. It opens us up to the possibility of a deeper story.
So what one are you caught up in right now? Is your story crippling you? Is it filling you with delight? Irving Berlin lived in a story made up of amazing choices. There were serious limitations. He could play only in the key of C. Yet he was the most successful song-writer of the 20th century. Isaac Stern was asked – how did he account for the discrepancy between Berlin’s modest musical talent and enormous achievement? It was his philosophy of life – it was the story he chose to tell himself about himself and the world.
Life was composed of a few basic elements: life and death, loneliness and love, hope and defeat. In our making our way through these givens, “affirmation is better than complaint, hope more viable than despair, kindness nobler than its opposite. That was about it. But because Berlin believed those platitudes implicitly, he helped people cut through the ambiguities and complexities of a confusing century.”[i]
Everyone knows the song – White Christmas — very well, but our ears are closed when we hear it because we’re so used to it. In fact, if you step back and think about the dramatic situation in the song, the narrator is recalling something that is beyond his reach. He says, `I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.’ LISTEN! [a choirboy sings solo]
Don’t knock it! This song is about our longing for some good news. It can prepare us to hear some tonight. White Christmas is a nose pressed up against the glass – a song from an immigrant Jewish outsider about a holiday that was never his. Irving Berlin was five when his parents brought him to America from Russia. The first Christmas he remembered was spent on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the home of Irish neighbors. And he remembered their tree. “. . . for the immigrant Irving Berlin, or at that point, Izzy Baline, as his real name was Israel Baline, the holiday represented the magic and wonder of the New World.”
Let’s all sing it right now and get in touch with that deep longing! Just stay seated and sing your heart out!
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know.
Where the treetops glisten,
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write.
May your days be merry and bright.
And may all your Christmases be white.
Yet, Christmas somehow never lives up to our expectations and maybe it’s that connection to the song and its melancholy that keeps us listening to it and singing it. The question is, tonight, are you open to some good news?
V: THE INVITATION IS VERY SIMPLE! It asks you to respond to a newborn baby without cynicism – and see yourself in the mystery. The moment you realize you’re not simply reading or hearing a story but that you are part of one – you are one! Everything changes. We wake up to the fact that we are neither where or who we want to be. We know that we need to go somewhere. Where? To Bethlehem – to see this thing which has come to pass. We are invited to see our lives as part of a tale full of wonder and meaning.
Remember the cry of Truman Capote’s character Joel “God, let me be loved.” The Christmas message. “You are!” This is our story – this is our song.
You can’t help being caught up in a story – so which one? The one about the world falling apart – social and political stories, racist ones, class ones – ones that always put us on top? So what story are you telling yourself about yourself and the world? Has it stopped or become too painful? Has it got you by the throat so that you think that’s how the world really is. Some stories are toxic. Perhaps yours? It’s time to let it go, throw it out.
Just listen to one of the classic definitions of the neurotic personality – someone who is denied “the blissful certainty of being wanted!” That’s all of us, if we’re honest! Tonight could be the time to let go of the story that tells you that you’re not worth a nickel and that you don’t matter, you don’t count.
VI: TONIGHT WE’RE INVITED INTO A WILD STORY. And note, the wildness of not so much about shepherds and angels and the magi – the stable. The real wildness of found in a couple subversive elements in this story which we would rather ignore because they undermine our sense of continuity and confidence. The Christmas Story addresses two truths we’d rather forget or ignore. The first is that the world is One, uncomfortably One – massive global suffering today interrupts the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about ourselves, about our entitlements and privileges.
The second truth is that on a very practical level we are all sisters and brothers. All those we set aside, forget, colonize, and simply dump, are demanding attention. What I find compelling about this story (and what I don’t like!) is that no-one is left out. So the story we need to tell ourselves about ourselves – if it is to be true and life-bearing – has to address human suffering and human solidarity. It has to take into account that other people in the world (in the Congo, in Darfur – let alone in Iraq and Afghanistan and down the street) are as real as we are. This is what the baby is telling us. This is our story – we are one family.
VII: IN THE LIGHT ON HUMAN SUFFERING AND THE REALITY OF OTHERS THE STORY OF THE BABY BORN IN STABLE IS DYNAMITE! If we were open to it, it would revolutionize how we imagine the world and think about God. The fact that so many of us are here, so many of us are giving Christmas another try – even if it’s only the sake of the children and coping with a crazy family for one more year reveals that none of us can live without either stories or commitments.
Are you blissfully certain that you are wanted? Is that central to the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself? Isn’t that’s the gift we want to give to our children, our lovers and friends? That’s the message of tonight. You are wanted and loved. God is saying: “Yes, it’s you I want! There been no one quite like you ever before! You are adorable! You are lovely. See that woman adoring her child? That’s how I am with you.”
Tonight’s story? – you are the place where God happens. There’s a whole new way of being in the world open to you – given the mess we’re in – not a bad idea! remember Joel’s prayer “God, let me be loved.” The Christmas message. “You are!” This is our story – this is our song.
[i] Houston Smith, p. 3
I suspect that it would be impossible to record all of us who have experienced Archbishop Tutu’s kindness and wisdom. His capacity for friendship seemed to know no bounds, let alone his creative genius and significance in world history. I count him as a friend going back fifty years.
When he spoke at the cathedral in 2008, I made a brief introduction: Here’s what I said. “Desmond is an old friend. I am honored to welcome you all to the cathedral for this very special evening. I can report that Desmond is the same now as he was before he was famous! I met him many years ago when, as Bishop of Lesotho, he was the guest of an upper East Side parish in Manhattan. They didn’t quite know what to do with him and asked me if I could invite him to come to The General Theological Seminary for tea with some students. We soon discovered that we had a lot in common! Not least of all — we were both trained for the priesthood by the same religious community (the Community of the Resurrection) and had Father Trevor Huddleston C.R. who wrote Naught for Your Comfort in the 60s as an inspiration. The Community had a strong connection with South Africa. This meeting began a strong and long friendship which I treasured for its depth, humor and kindness.”
I have several memories of his humor (coupled with his infectious laughter) — I remember one breakfast in the Archbishop’s “palace” in Cape Town and looking at a wall covered with copies of his being made an honorary citizen of many of the major cities throughout the world. In the most prominent place was his honorary citizenship of Disneyland! — “a world where happiness is a way of life.” He made fun of his tending to be overweight — “They will be naming me Desmond Three Three if I’m not careful!” But it should be noted also that his humor was unafraid of his highlighting his dark experiences. For example, when he and his followers were confined to a holding cell in the Cape Town Prison, he shouted, “I demand to see my lawyer!” And a voice came from the back of the cell: “I am already here, Your Grace!” Those held in the cell collapsed with laughter.
I remember escorting Desmond to a meeting in a local hotel in San Francisco. As we were crossing the hotel lobby, a woman rushed up to him and grabbed his hand: “Mr. Mandela, it’s such an honor to meet you!” Desmond smiled and squeezed her hand without a word. When he was accused of being a communist sympathizer he told the oppressors, “We do not take our marching orders from Moscow. We take our marching orders from Galilee!”
Besides meeting many times in the US, we also met in Johannesburg and Cape Town — during the cruel absurdities of apartheid — when even simple acts of friendship were illegal! But my trip in July 1994 was very different from my first visit over ten years earlier. Then, I needed a visa and had to promise that I was going purely for pleasure. I spent some of my time in Johannesburg doing things that were technically illegal but which we take for granted — like eating out with one’s friends and visiting their homes. During that visit, Desmond was in the witness box during the trial of his predecessor as head of the South African Council of Churches. I sat for several hours in the visitors’ gallery of the court. Desmond and I did manage to have lunch and I was able to spend some time in Soweto — both technically illegal. He was always unafraid to speak out with both passion and grace! He made the headlines one night I was with him, with his trashing government and MPs for their high salaries.
My most vivid memory of spending a great time with Desmond was in Cape Town. I was staying at the Deanery and following a good supper of banana, guava and pawpaw he took me with him to the opening of the Bridge in the notorious District Six. There was a “colored” band in part “black face” with white make-up called the Coons! This was not a politically correct country! District Six saw demolition on a large scale — all that was left were two mosques and a church — institutions which the authorities dared not touch — and the displacement of non-white residents on a large scale. With Desmond in good form, we met a Moslem at the opening who was a delight — enjoying the language and relishing his love of the British. He said Christians and Muslims lived in great harmony in the old District Six and that he knew all the words of “Abide with me” and “Rock of Ages.” I learned that all the houses in District Six had three ducks flying in formation on the wall, a “Bless This House” sign and a picture of the Queen. The man wondered why an Englishman would have anything to do with “them Yanks” and left me with “Salaam alaykum and the best of British luck!” The people in Six loved language and came up with some priceless malapropisms. “My husband just died. His heart attacked him.” And, “My wife has just had her history rectified.” We stayed for the Annual General Meeting of District Six which was less than half an hour and finished with a rousing singing of the national anthem — Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica. I tell this story because this is and was Desmond’s world – a revelation of his generous soul and brave spirit. He will be greatly missed but will perpetually inspire. Alleluia!
Dean Emeritus of Grace Cathedral
Most of us know this famous response by Francis Church to a letter from an 8-year-old, Virginia O’Hanlon, published in The New York Sun in 1897.
“DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
The response was printed as an unsigned editorial on Sept. 21, 1897.
“Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. . .
. . . Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever.”
The letter is as warm and fuzzy as it is unconvincing, but it does serve a useful function in it’s a good idea, from time to time, to recover the weirdness of existence, its very oddness, the wonder of being alive at all. Even those among us who tend to be skeptical, let alone, to be generally cynical, would profit from being brought up short with the oddness of being here at all. This is a good time of year to think about how strange it is to be here.
Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not A Gadget points out that people reduce themselves because of information technologies. “Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality.” Information underrepresents reality. Information can’t give us the full picture. No wonder many of us are disgruntled, disillusioned about politics and worried about the future. The gathering of data isn’t enough and more and more we find ourselves living in a data junkyard.
We live now with a definite undertow of decadence. Jacques Barzun wrote, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” In the light of this, “Yes, Virginia . . .” is a call to rebellion, albeit of an odd kind. Santa Claus may not exist but the story tells us that Virginia and each one of us matters, and that a life fully lived is one full of expectation.
How do we nurture the imagination to create an environment of possibility for ourselves and for others? Why have a generous construction of the world? For example, what comes to mind when you hear, “Twinkle, twinkle little star?” Martha Nussbaum tells the story of one of her students who responded to the question in this way. He saw a sky beautifully blazing with stars and bands of bright color and the sight made him look in a new way at his dog, a cocker spaniel. “I used to look into the dog’s eyes and wonder what the dog was really thinking and feeling. Was my dog ever sad? It pleased me to think about my dog and the way he experienced the world. I looked him in the eyes and knew that he loved me and was capable of feeling pleasure and pain. It then made me think tenderly about my mom and dad and other children I knew.”[i]
Why would “Twinkle, twinkle little star?” make someone think that the starry sky was benevolent and not malevolent? Why think of your dog as loving and good rather than devilish and cruel? Who cares whether some dog is happy or sad? There are plenty of people who take pleasure in an animal’s pain. Martha Nussbaum assures us that something important is going on. She writes, “The strange fact is that the nursery rhyme itself, like other rhymes, nourished a tender humanity within us and stirs up in us the prospect of friendship. It doesn’t make us think paranoid thoughts of a hateful being in the sky, who’s out to get us. It tells the child to think of a star like a diamond rather than as a missile of destruction and also not like a machine good only for production and consumption. The nursery rhyme nourishes a generous construction of the seen.”
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus! We’re not talking about the literal truth but what it takes to nourish a generous construction of the seen! Think of Irving Berlin’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. Is it true? No, of course not! Is it true? Yes, of course it is! Imagine. It’s December 1941. Bing Crosby is singing it on his Radio show on Christmas Eve – 17 days after Pearl Harbor. For many American troops — fighting in WWII — it was their first time away from home. Irving Berlin lived in a story made up of amazing choices. He faced serious limitations. He could play only in the key of C. Yet he was the most successful songwriter of the 20th century. He embraced a generous construction of the seen. Life was composed of a few basic elements: life and death, loneliness and love, hope and defeat. In our making our way through these givens, “affirmation is better than complaint, hope more viable than despair, kindness nobler than its opposite. That was about it. But because Berlin believed those platitudes implicitly, he helped people cut through the ambiguities and complexities of a confusing century.”[ii]
Everyone knows the song — White Christmas, but our ears are closed when we hear it because we’re so used to it. In fact, if you step back and think about the dramatic situation in the song, the narrator is recalling something that is beyond his reach. He says, `I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.’ Don’t knock it! This is a song from an immigrant Jewish outsider about a holiday that was never his. Irving Berlin was five when his parents brought him to America from Russia. The first Christmas he remembered was spent on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the home of Irish neighbors. The song was an immediate hit. It has no overt religion in it, no Baby Jesus, no manger — but it became a wartime anthem of love and longing. It opens us up to the possibility of a deeper story — a generous construction of the seen. Not a bad way to celebrate Christmas. Not a bad way to celebrate life.
Let Albert Einstein have the (almost) last word: “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”
“Yes, Virginia! There is a Santa Claus!”
[i] Paraphrase from Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice, Boston: Beacon Press, 1995, pp. 38-39
[ii] Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001, p. 3.
A Thanksgiving Note from Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus, Grace Cathedral
G.K. Chesterton wrote somewhere that, as far as his religion was concerned, he was held together by “the thin thread of thanks.” That phrase came to me as we approach our annual celebration of Thanksgiving. Chesterton wrote,
“I clung to religion, by one thin thread of thanks… At the back of our brains… there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder, so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”
Not a bad way to approach our annual festival, not least given the upheavals and violence in the world and the craziness of our political rhetoric. Thanksgiving is a good celebration bringing people and families together, but I wonder if that thread of thanks has worn too thin?
I have affectionate memories of Harvest Festivals in my native England. I remember one particular celebration in Norfolk over forty years ago. We were staying with a priest who had ten little village churches to look after — all of them had to have a separate Harvest Festival service of their very own. (They could get together for Christmas and Easter but not for the Harvest Festival!) In each little church, there were mounds of local produce and canned goods from all over the world, piled up around the altar. There was a lot to be thankful for. Giving thanks seems to be built into being a human being — to be thankful for the bounty of nature and the gift of life. It runs deep, this longing for connection.
There’s a saying of the Kalahari Bushmen of this cosmic longing — “to walk again with the moon and the stars.” At its deepest, thanksgiving has to do with the celebration of connection and connectedness. That’s why it’s very hard on those of us who are disconnected to be thankful. A heart that cannot give thanks is a sorry and sad business. Are we — as a nation — losing our capacity for saying thank you? Maybe we have to do some repair work of reconnection before we can give proper thanks? Our trouble begins, I think, with contempt for the world. This assertion may come as a bit of a surprise because most of us think that we love the world — but look at the way we treat it. Look at the way we treat each other.
Wendell Berry writes, “I begin… with the assumption that perhaps the great disaster of human history is the one that happened to or within religion: that is, the… division between the holy and the world… Those who were disposed to exploit it were thus free to do so.” We think the world is there to be used rather than enjoyed (there’s a crucial difference — it becomes clearer when you apply these two words to your treatment of people). “The contempt for the world or the hatred of it, which is exemplified both by the wish to exploit it for the sake of cash and the willingness to despise it for the sake of ‘salvation,’ has reached a disturbing climax in our own time.”
We need to recover this “thin thread of thanks” if we are to survive and flourish. For Chesterton, the mystical is normal. To have a mystical sense is to have an open grateful heart for the sheer gift of life. While we need to be unsentimental and realistic, the bottom line is that pessimism is pathological. Cynicism is a sickness of soul. In giving of thanks the heart is healed of its sickness. And that is true not only for individuals, but for communities and even for nations. So this Thanksgiving, let’s dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder. When and if we find it, we should be prepared for upheaval. I find that the giving of thanks is dangerous because uncomfortable challenges begin to invade my private world when I am pressured to end my isolation. The sense of the giftedness of things is prior to the sense of our being actors and agents in our world. Acts of thanksgiving for the sheer giftedness of things undermine my sense of being in charge of my life. We want to own things. We do not like to hold things in trust. We would rather live in a consumer society than in a community, which sees life as a gift. When we think we own things, we don’t owe anyone thanks. We choose hostility over hospitality.
If we could accept ourselves as dependent and contingent, we might be able to experience something of the freedom of a St. Augustine who knew himself first and foremost to be a gift: “God’s first gift to me was my own fragile self.” When we understand that about ourselves, our response will be one long act of thanksgiving. That thin thread is amazingly resilient and will not only bear us forward but bring us joy.
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.