The Christmas Package
The Christmas Package
It could be said that the story of the Prodigal involves a relationship between father and son; but so does the story of the Nativity. Indeed, the pillar, the same thing that underlies each story, is a God who loves us so much that the grace of that love cannot be measured. When we, the Prodigals, respond to that love, the result is forgiveness and reconciliation. This is not to say there will never be consequences from sin. In both the Prodigal’s world and in the world of the Nativity, there was imperfection and pain. But separation from the love of God is never the end of the story.
It also could be said that the story of the Prodigal involves redemption in an individual sense whereas the Nativity involves redemption in a collective sense. But, in fact, the individual reformation of the Prodigal is not distinguishable in kind or degree from the transformation – the commitment – which faith in the Nativity demands of each of us. The Nativity is the story of the Prodigal multiplied by as many humans as there exist on earth. In the Nativity, humankind itself is the Prodigal: stained by Adam’s sin, lost, humankind achieves reconciliation with the Father through the victory of the One who leads the way. Because the bottom line is that as far as each individual is concerned, any amount of sin is unacceptable. We are all Prodigals, but the hope of the Nativity is offered to each, individually.
Raphael, The Madonna of Foligno
(at the Vatican)
Thus, as viewed through the lens of comparing what it is that is demonstrated by each story, the differences melt away. In each story, the one who falls short is offered a cup that overflows with abundance of forgiveness and love, a love whose limits are boundless for the one who accepts the offer. When we accept this offer, the liberation from sin and death is complete. We are freed from a life of deprivation and eating slop intended for the pigs. We can come into the knowledge of who we truly are: God’s beloved children, liberated by Grace.
Hence we celebrate the birth of the One who made it possible. Just as the father of the Prodigal could see the end, we too know the ending; the victorious triumph over sin and death. We thus sing: “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come, Let Earth Receive Her King!” And we sing: “Peace on Earth, and Mercy Mild, God and Sinner Reconciled!” A message of love and reconciliation. That’s what it’s all about. A timeless message from an unbounded, timeless God, a God who beckons us with open hands, saying, “Welcome home, beloved Prodigal.”
In my last blog entry, I suggested lectio divina as a way of spicing up one’s spiritual life. A most striking example of the fruit this technique can bring is the book Henri Nouwen wrote about his own lectio divina journey in his meditation on the story of the prodigal son. In Return of the Prodigal: A Story of Homecoming (see link in my book list), Nouwen shares his reflections that were specifically aided by his meditations on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name, one of Rembrandt’s last works. Nouwen’s musings on the scripture — and the painting — spanned over several months of time.
(thanks to Web Gallery of Art for this illustration,
It’s a beautiful story. And a beautiful, deep painting. But, at first glance, the story of the Prodigal Son – just like the story of the Nativity — seems a bit over-chewed, doesn’t it? The story is so vivid that it’s the subject of children’s books, and then again tends to be the subject of at least one sermon per year in church. It’s easy to understand why: the story is vivid, the characters easy to visualize, the circumstances easy to imagine. The scene of the Jewish son reduced not only to tending for unclean animals, but to eating slop intended as food for the unclean animals, is pretty dramatic, as is the homecoming itself. The father running to greet his wayward son is a touching end that illustrates the elder man’s forgiveness in the face of the son’s humility and repentance. It’s a beautiful illustration of God’s love for us wayward creatures.
Yet, this visual picture actually just skims the surface. Just as there is another layer to the Nativity, there is another layer to the story of the Prodigal. The characters in the painting have none of the worldly beauty or cockiness sometimes apparent in Rembrandt’s earlier works. Why did Rembrandt choose this subject to paint, near the end of his life? Why did Nouwen choose it?
As if peeling an onion, Nouwen reveals layer after layer of complexity. He notes, for example, the two very different hands of the father which are touching the son, one decidedly masculine and the other decidedly effeminate. One old and one young. At some point, his attention turns to the other characters in the scene, each of whom was surely included by Rembrandt for some purpose. Nouwen ends up dwelling extensively on the unrepentant elder brother, who stands scowling from the sidelines. In the older brother, Nouwen recognizes his own hardness of heart as a young man; Nouwen also discusses Rembrandt as a younger man, through exposition of Rembrandt’s personal biography.
When the complexity resulting from the elder brother’s jealousy and misunderstanding is added into the tale, the story becomes more than a simple tale of a father and son reunited. Lifetimes worth of complex relationships must be sorted out. A hard hearted elder brother becomes the rejecting child, the new prodigal; an indulgent father reaps the consequences of many prior years of parenting decisions. The younger son can repent from his actions, but he cannot erase the fact that he has spent his half of the family inheritance and must therefore live in the future as a servant to his brother. This family clearly has a lot of work to do before it will achieve peace. The story isn’t quite as simple as it first appears.
But, in my own meditations, this was not the aspect of the story that I found most striking. Though inspired by my reading of Nouwen, my own wild revelation came more from my own quest and from my own meandering meditations. Namely, I was most struck by the father and on what transpired just before the younger son left. When his snide, young son came to the father demanding his inheritance “up front,” the son’s spiritual state was already clearly evident. It was already clear to the father – painfully clear — that the young man was going to go squander his inheritance living the high life. It was clearly foreseeable that once the son spent his half of his father’s estate, he would have nothing left. The end, though perhaps not pre-determined, was already known. The father knew what would happen. Because as I dwelt upon this story, it gradually dawned on me that the elderly father was not the fool that the son took him to be. He knew what the son was about to do; he knew ahead of time that the young man was going to squander his inheritance.
If so, then why did he allow the grand folly to proceed? Why? Tomorrow, I will tie this in to the Christmas story.
Yesterday I wrote about the formidible challenge of keeping Christmas from losing all real meaning in a secular world. But, even assuming that we agree to keep the baby Jesus rather than an orgy of commercialism as the "reason for the season," does it even then sometimes seem as if the story is — well — sometimes a bit rehashed? I mean, yes, it’s all warm and fuzzy and babies are cute and all. And we love to welcome babies into our midst. They are great cause for celebration. But I mean really, at Christmas, for the umpteenth time, and the same baby? He never even grows, he’s always just a newborn in a manger! Do you ever feel that those same old same old sermons sometimes just get a bit, well, worn?
If so, boy do I have a solution for you to spice up your prayer life! It’s called "lectio divina," which in Latin means (more or less) to ponder the meaning of the word. Though it’s most famously associated with and propounded by St. Benedict, this technique is actually not unique to Christianity. I believe it is a form of meditation called by many names by thoughtful people all over the world, widely used by most major world religions. I would like to share it and offer it as a technique that can be used by a person from any religious tradition. It can even be used to spice up your prayer life where the Nativity is concerned.
The technique is to take one verse of scripture and then to meditate on it. Not just read it. Meditate. Dwell on the idea, imagine it, think about it from various aspects and angles. From the web page of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Gertrude, I quote:
The actual process of lectio is as simple as it can be transforming. Traditionally lectio is taught as four steps. The first is lectio or reading. Take a short passage of Scripture and read it over slowly and carefully. What word or phrase seems to catch you or make you stop? Take that word or phrase and repeat it slowly to yourself several times.
The next step is meditatio or meditation. Ponder the word or phrase that came to you. How is it speaking to you? Where does it lead you? What does it remind you of? Spend some time listening to where it takes you.
Next, let your meditation become oratio or prayer. Turn the insights of your meditation into a prayer. It may be a prayer of thanksgiving, a plea for help, a request for the strength to change. This prayer is simply offering to God whatever came from your insights in meditation.
Finally, from prayer move to contemplatio or contemplation. This is a simple, wordless resting in God’s presence. God knows our needs, our wounds and gifts, words are no longer needed. Simply spend some resting under God’s loving gaze.
I have to confess, lectio divina is my favorite prayer technique. Perhaps that’s because something so simple is all I can manage, or perhaps it’s because it suits me well. Even as I go about my ordinary routine, washing dishes perhaps, I can still think and meditate.
I also like it because it seems particularly fruitful for me. When one follows the same passage of scripture mentally, or prayerfully, for many days on end, it’s amazing what different insights emerge. Sometimes the twists, turns, and eddies that one follow through extended meditation can lead far from where one might have imagined. The Order of St. Gertrude writes, “[t]his encounter with scripture will not leave us unchanged, in God’s revealed word we receive strength and guidance for our continuing journey.”
The house is a mess, the dishes are undone, I’m all alone. But the stockings are hung with care — on the knobs that hold the stairs — and, for some reason, it feels like Christmas today.
Maybe it’s because today is the first day we’ve had where it is legitimately cold enough to wear a sweat shirt, and thus the first time I can wear any of my clothing that has Christmas themes to it. Or perhaps it’s that familiar feeling of guilt that I always have during Christmas when there is so much still left undone. Or, perhaps it’s because I’ve just come home from a school Christmas production. Munchkin was a mouse in “The Night Before Christmas” (and a very cute one, I might add). I’d prefer to think it was the Christmas mouse idea that makes me feel like it’s Christmas time, rather than guilt or weather . . . .
The school was careful to be politically correct and only sing secular songs: songs like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It’s my opinion that Americans in the USA tend to be more sensitive about the “religion” issue than is warranted. The strength of a multicultural environment is that, living in an international setting, we become knowledgeable about many different traditions. We deliberately honor our friendships with our multicultural friends by learning about each other’s beliefs and traditions. For example, since living in China, I’ve learned more about Diwali, Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Ya Sui (Chinese mid winter festival) than I knew in the USA. Last year, as we strolled along the streets of Guangzhou on the night of Ya Sui, it was so nice when strangers also out strolling in the evening would chime to us, “Merry Christmas!” Christmas was our celebration, not theirs, but they had the courtesy to learn something about it and I appreciated that.
And so it is with some sense of regret that I see the meaningful part of Christmas – my own religious tradition — being blacked out by the fat, felt tip marker of self censorship, depriving young learners of the opportunity to learn about an important world tradition. In the name of political correctness, not only traditional Christmas carols but most of the story that underlies Christmas is erased from minds, memories, and vocabularies. Children who would love to learn about Christmas and what it might stand for, as a matter of natural curiosity about religions of the world, are prevented from acquiring knowledge of a few thousand years worth of western heritage and tradition. My sister told me of standing next to some people in one of the world famous art museums, gazing at one of the world reknowned works of art, and the people had no clue what the painting was about. If they had received any instruction whatsoever in the history of their own culture, they would have known the painting as well as its circumstances. Such is the cost of ignorance: it only takes lack of education in one generation to wipe out centuries of heritage.
Thus whitewashed, gradually being snuffed from the collective memory of society, the holiday becomes as meaningless and utterly commercial as the seven tiny Santas I once saw waving from the a storefront display at a big, Chinese shopping mall – looking as if all they needed to complete the picture was for Snow White to appear there with them, dressed in her matching Christmas suit and handing out discount cards designed to encourage people to buy even more “stuff” — celebrating a giant binge of consumerism at the height of the winter solstice. No wonder the rest of the world thinks that rampant consumption and consumerism is what western culture – and American culture in particular — is all about. Out of fear of causing offense, we utterly fail to communicate the basis for our values, what we hold dear, and the true basis for our traditions. Sometimes, we fail to communicate our heritage even to our own children.
As a parting thought then, I suggest that we celebrate a song of Christmas. Let vibrant voices ring out in the traditional, sacred Christmas carols. Be honest about the Christmas story. It’s not about Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Father Christmas is a spirit of giving, a symbol only of a much deeper, more meaningful gift:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Christmas celebrates the birth of a baby, but not just any baby. It represents the birth of hope. This is what we Christians need to show we are excited about: the fact that there is a place for hope and redemption in a world where there is so much pain and brokenness. A true cause for celebration. Forget guilt, forget cold weather. I’m going to be happy right here where I am, and gonna’ put on a little Christmas music, too!