christmas wars

For a holiday season that promotes peace and goodwill for all, Christmas has become a magnet for religious and cultural battles. And the fighting seems to intensify each year.

Here’s a story that is causing quite a discussion in a nearby town. A woman was paying for her purchases at a grocery till, when the clerk wished her a “Happy Holiday!” Furious, the customer dove into a rant about it being Christmas, not some generic holiday. Finally, she left her purchases on the counter and left in a huff.

Christmas cards from politicians are judged and scrutinized. What does the greeting say? Is Christmas mentioned? Is God?

Joyless emails land in my inbox, bemoaning the fact that we need to “Put Christ back in Christmas.” They predict dire consequences if we don’t stand up and fight against the secular demons.

I read a blog post written by a Catholic mother who describes the present reality as “spiritual warfare.” It is our duty to stand up and fight to keep Christianity at the forefront of Christmas. And, we must teach our children to do the same.

Meanwhile, many families of other faith traditions struggle with the big Christmas question. A Jewish Christmas? Some say “Oy Tannenbaum”, over at the National Catholic Reporter, describes various approaches by Jews in North America. Some try to assimilate the secular holiday of good cheer. Others feel that any assimilation is a threat to their own faith.

The debates and battles that occur along the sacred-secular divide make me cringe. First of all, it’s the level of intolerance on both sides of the ideological wall. As Christians, we have the freedom and right to religious observances; as do all faiths. For us, Christmas is not merely a sentimental holiday focused on stars and stables and babes in mangers. It is the Feast Day celebrating the Incarnation; God taking on flesh and becoming one of us. Mean-spirited trashing of our beliefs is not only hurtful; it smells of religious intolerance and even hatred.

As Christians, we have to acknowledge that we live in a diverse society. Unless we choose a ghettoized existence, we will be rubbing shoulders with women and men of different faiths, and no faith. This gives us graced opportunities for dialogue across religious and cultural divides. But, the best way to ensure that the conversation train never leaves the station is to walk along the tracks with a big sign stating that you and your beliefs, alone, are right.

Along with the intolerance on all sides, I am fed up with the demonization of all that is secular. Yes, it is a struggle to keep a spiritual focus amidst the busyness of Christmas preparations. But, generosity and giving is at the heart of Christianity. Charities know this, and are the happy recipients at this time of the year. Buying a thoughtful present for someone nudges us to look more deeply into their hearts and desires. Feasting and merriment celebrates the gift of family and friends. What’s un-Christian about that?

To all who want to turn Christmas into a battle-ground…give it a rest! If you want to speak of “spiritual warfare”, take a look at the real issues around you; poverty, injustice, inequality, violence, etc. Wish me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Holiday. A greeting of good cheer is always welcome.

Here’s to keeping the Peace and Joy in Christmas!

enlarging the tents vs. circling the wagons

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Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;

do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. Isaiah 54:2

 Several years ago, I was asked to be part of a visioning team with my dear Benedictine friends. The Sisters were discerning the future of the monastery in a time of diminishing and aging members. One Sister proposed this line from Isaiah as a mantra and guide.

What a courageous and inspiring image! These women refused to allow their hearts to mirror their shrinking numbers. Instead, they began looking at new ways to share their cherished charism. Not ready to roll up their tents, they dreamed of expansion by embracing new ways of thinking and of being. Today, part of the monastery has been refurbished into St. Benedict’s Place; independent living suites for seniors who “seek to age meaningfully and gracefully with others in a peace-filled environment.”

The image of enlarging tent sites is a useful metaphor in today’s world of ever-narrowing ideologies. The Tea Party in the U.S draws those who want to circle the wagons and hunker down into a security seeking conservatism. Many religions, including Roman Catholics, have groups that would happily wave farewell to all members who do not follow their own fundamentalist or traditionalist ideals.

For these groups, a smaller, “purer” community of the faithful is preferred to the messiness of diversity or dialogue. Clinging to a perceived golden age of the past is preferred to facing the challenges of new methods and new times.

In this dreaming time of Advent, it’s worth taking a moment to vision what our world and our church would look like if we all worked at enlarging the tent site. What if we stretched those stakes and cords further than we thought possible – welcoming others more freely rather than turning more away? What if we learned to expand our boundaries and embrace the risk of newness?

life`s highways

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:4) 

I am a prairie woman. I like my land flat. I like my horizons endless. I like my skies expansive. I grumble mightily when my easy, smooth path hits an incline. I huff and I puff when faced with a hill. I don`t understand why anyone would pay good money for a torture exercise machine that replicates the experience.

I am also a novice runner. I began a running program at the end of this summer; a perfect time of year. The weather was gorgeous. The paths turned from summer splendor to autumn glory. I began to feel fit, and almost reached that stage of getting a mini-high. By October I had reached the goal of running non-stop for 30 minutes. Wahoo!

But now, winter has arrived. Determined not to buy the torture tread-mill machine, I have vowed to continue running outdoors. But, I wasn`t prepared for the physiological changes of cold-weather running. When the temperatures dip, so does your energy level. Your legs feel like lead. The harsh winds bite at your face, and your lungs don`t know what hit them. And then there`s the path.

Gone are the smooth roads of summer; replaced by a sloppy mess of heavy snow and sand. Today, stretches of frozen humps point accusatory fingers at the lack of proper snow removal during last week`s warm spell. I tried on a new pair of ice and snow grips on my runners. They were brilliant; until they fell off during my first circuit around the park. Hmmm…it`s December 6th. How many more sleeps until spring?

Advent is a time of wishful thinking and dreaming with the prophet Isaiah. It is a time of waiting and yearning for a time of overflowing banquets, peace-filled lands, and rough places turning to plains. A lumpy jogging path is merely an annoyance. What about the real barriers and obstacles in my life, and in the lives of those around me? What can I, what can we do to help remove them? What good can we do to fill the valleys of need? What actions can we take to tear down the mountains of hatred, poverty, and injustice?

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.(Isaiah 40:5)