Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve 2006

Isaiah 9
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death [a]
a light has dawned.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, [b] Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

This year the Humbug Award goes to the Disney Corporation for asking a portly fellow with a white beard and a red shirt to alter his appearance or leave the park. It seems James Worley is often mistaken for the jolly elf this time of year, and when some kids at Disney World asked him if he was Santa, he gave them that distinctive “ho ho ho.”

The problem began when some parents complained that Mr. Worley was confusing the kids. Park officials soon intervened and demanded he stop. Trying to understand the exact harm of being confused with this Christmas icon, Mr. Worley was told that it was against park rules to impersonate a Disney character. Imagine being the PR person who has to explain away the suggestion that somehow Disney owns Christmas.

Call it the “twelve grumpy days of Christmas:” the time when follish people and the news media conspire to provide yearly examples of the controversial side of the holiday. Christmas tree or holiday tree? Creche or no Creche? Christmas decorations in airports, courthouses or schools? It seems we are compelled year by year to define again the limits of a secular society and the extent to which one culture or tradition can be dominant. As they say in the news business, it makes good copy.

It makes good copy, and it also points to something deeper: symbols have power. An ordinary object, such as a tree, set in a particular context or described in a particular way takes on meaning and assumes the power to delight or inspire or offend. Something can be regarded as a neutral symbol by some, and a red flag for others. Red flag: it’s hard to even talk about symbols without using symbolic language.

Christmas requires what Northrop Frye described as an “abstract approach” to symbols. You take an idea such as the birth of a Saviour, and you try to find a concrete way to represent it. Suddenly you end up with a plethora of symbols: some drawn from scripture, some from tradition and some borrowed from pagan sources. Meaning and importance vary from place to place and within each interpreter. The object that says “Christmas” to me may not say it to you. You see the problem.

The root of all this confusion is the subject at hand: how do you represent a mystery? Incarnation, the belief that God has entered the world in Jesus, is a mystery. What does a mystery look like? You can’t see it, it has no form, it comes without description: it is mystery. Listen to Isaiah as he tries his best to describe this mystery:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, [b] Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

As soon as he begins, he switches into symbolic language. Phrases like “Prince of Peace” already had symbolic meaning to his listeners, and Isaiah uses this phrase to add power to his description. The fact that he tries to describe this birth in so many ways and with such powerful words, only highlights that this mystery is hard to describe. In our heards we may know Isaiah comes close, but ultimatley he cannot describe the indescribably.

Tonight I suggest we do some “desymbolization,” a word that I wanted to believe I coined until I googled it and found out otherwise. I suggest we strip away all the alyers of symbols that have accumulated over time, all the pictures and phrases, even setting aside Matthew and Luke for a moment and concentrating on the one thing that we learned in our last hymn: “He is born, little child Divine (sic “the divine child”).” (Il est ne, le divin Enfant.)

Setting aside the weight of all those symbols, and we are left with a baby. Reduced to its essence, you have a newborn. And what do newborns represent? (new life, hope, the future, etc.)

Now, the problem with my attempt at “desymbolization” is the very thing that makes us human: we can’t help but make symbols. We can’t help but ascribe meaning. As soon as we desymbolize, we resymbolize all over again. This birth is related to all births. It is the birth of hope, it is the potential for new beginnings, it represents the future. It is also power in vulnerability, as each new life beings in an equally fragile way.

And this is the heart of the day: God entered the world in the most fragile means possible, and in so doing set about to experience all of human life. God experienced the joy of family, the pain of separation, the sting of injustice and the agony of death. And in doing so, new symbols were born: Tonight we will share the simple elements of bread and wine, body and blood, and share together a sacred meal of symbol and meaning. It is fitting that we should gather at this table: it is the thing Jesus most treasured in life, and a perfect representation of God’s desire to enter our lives.

Tomorrow, when you sit at your table, may it be an extension of this table. May you be fed, then and now, and may you experience the new life that finds us in the mystery of communion and the mystery of incarnation. Amen.


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