Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Star Light

The streets are lined with parols (from the Spanish word farol), lanterns shaped like stars to commemorate the Star of Bethlehem. According to Wikipedia, "In the Philippines, the parol has become an iconic symbol of a Filipino Christmas and is as important to Filipinos as the Christmas Tree is to other cultures. Its appearance on houses and streets, which usually starts in September along with other Christmas symbols, signals the coming of the season." Yes, we LOVE Christmas and have the longest season of the year - I would say, from October through January. Perhaps this explains my deep, extended enjoyment of it; it's partly cultural.

Growing up in the Philippines I remember watching the women in our household making parols. This has become a lost tradition from what I can tell now - all the parols hanging over the streets for the Christmas Eve barrio fiestas were electric. The colorful, home-made, crêpe paper and bamboo stars of my childhood are just memories of Christmases past. I feel wistful over this technologic sign of the times. There is something special about taking time to cut the crackly paper, feel its fronds between one's fingers, decide which colors to use and whether to create more elaborate designs. We're losing the capacity to linger over our crafts.

It's been a reminder to me of the tension between modern Christmas, with all its delightful but materialistic trappings, and true Christmas. I am not one of those who criticizes Christmas commercialism every year. I see it as a manifestation of our natural need for physical comforts. We are flesh and bone, sensation and movement. If we take pleasure in sparkling lights, wondrous music, freshly baked Christmas cookies, cheerful decorations, and delightful presents, it's because these comfort some very physical, real, tangible aspects of ourselves. I don't believe it's very generous or understanding to point fingers at these enjoyments, but that's because I subscribe to ideas expressed in this year's holiday episode of the TV show Bones: "As adults we're imbued by the pragmatic routines of life, which makes it difficult for us to regard anything with childlike wonder. But you know, it's all right for us to try. We put on silly hats and drape trees with sparkly lights, wrap gifts with garish paper, and that's good for us."

But I know, seeing it up close right now, that there is a sad side to our enjoyment of these little things, and that's the absence of these real pleasures in the lives of many and perhaps most people in our world. There are so many children in these streets who will have no Christmas today or tomorrow - not of this intensely material sort. I have to believe that by their plight they are closer to the Christ child than anyone else could be, and hope that they will have the "better portion," if not today, then someday - the true Christmas spirit, a peace and joy that surpass understanding.

Like the street kids that come up to our vehicle at every intersection, all the characters in the 2000-year old story were pushed to the fringes, homeless, tired, hungry, and far from friends and family. The shepherds: social outcasts living in poverty, doing a thankless night-shift like so many workers today - police officers, guards, health care workers, janitors, etc. The wise men, on a long trip in a foreign land. Mary and Joseph, who had to beg for lodging far from the center of town, far from home, and wind up where some stranger kept his animals. On the margins, far from the center: Jesus would start his life there, live it there, and die there, among people ignored and unloved by others (who would have the option to feast and enjoy the comforts of holiday trappings all their lives).

I know the things I enjoy about Christmas are not Christmas. It's not about baking cookies or wrapping presents - though I enjoy those. It's not about sparkling lights and wondrous music - though I love those. It's not even about spending time with friends and family - though I consider these among the most important parts of my life.

It's about one thing and one thing only: hope. Not the shallow hope of someone wishing for a particular Christmas present or a happy outcome. Not hope as defined by Michael Gerson in The Washington Post: "seeing present challenges in a positive light, living in the expectancy that the future will turn out well." This is mere optimism. What I mean by hope, rather, is the hope incarnate in a baby's birth or in the light of a guiding star, a light that doesn't waver even in the world's darkest corners: it is a kind of faith and rejoicing in the ultimate preciousness of our lives, a way of living in the world. It is a deep, inexpressible hope that comes from trusting that in our connections, in the presence of the sacred among us, in our very own worth as the stuff of this precious universe, we are never alone, and we have the power to transform sorrow into joy, darkness into light, destruction into new life.

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