Saturday, December 5, 2015

Happy Holidays from St Nicholas

Increasingly I don't feel the need to be obnoxious about my faith, especially at this time of the year when it seems to me that many of my fellow Christians, skipping Advent entirely, observe "the Christmas season" by complaining about the fact that many people they encounter have the audacity to wish them "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." At least for me, Christmas is first and foremost a religious observance. Yes, I used the word religious. I am unapologetically religious and wholeheartedly affirm that Christianity is not only a "religion", but true religion featuring a cultus and everything. By "religious" I don't mean private, but I do mean sacred. By "sacred" I mean set apart, consecrated, thus making it a time for celebration and joy, not joyless solemnity. Even Advent, taking it's cue from the sacred liturgy, is a time of waiting in joyful hope.

Whether you look at the Decalogue or take your cue from Christ's two great commandments, the first commandment is about worshiping God, loving Him with one's entire being. I believe that human beings are made to worship, that is, to commune with God, with each other, and the rest of creation. Hence, at our deepest level we are homo adorans. Earlier this week, in my post about Advent, I wrote about my uneasy relationship with what my society and culture observe as "the Christmas season." To be honest, I deal with it by not dealing with it and simply enjoying the dark, quiet of opting out to the extent I am able. In a culture that is increasingly post-Christian - a trend I don't see reversing anytime soon - I can think of nothing less important, nothing more counter-evangelical, than obnoxiously insisting people, stores and restaurants, etc., wish me a Merry Christmas. In other words, I choose not to attempt "evangelizing" by taking everyone hostage by my eagerness to be loudly offended.

So there. Deal with it

On the other side of the coin, I very much suspect that the whole flap over the plain red Starbuck's cup was an exaggerated set-up, one for which only the least aware and most aggressive of the Christian cultural hostage-takers took the bait, whether they were decrying Starbuck's design or criticizing those who decried Starbuck's design. In other words, given Starbuck's "social" commitments, nobody was surprised that the corporation that invited people who support marriage to divest from the company did not feature a manager scene on their coffee cups, something I would've found far more disturbing.

Tomorrow is St Nicholas Day. St Nicholas of Myra, of course, is the basis for Santa Claus, for Jolly Old St Nick, and all that. Most people, I think, have at least a vague awareness of this connection. It is a connection, not an identity. Growing up in a quasi-Christian milieu I am pretty sure I had some vague awareness of this connection. No doubt the famous incident of Nicholas, who was a participant in the Council of Nicea, punching a fellow council father will be drug out and applied to all kinds of things as a rationalization for the anger that arises from our inability to forcefully impose Christmas on society at large, especially store clerks.

The next annual manifestation of this will be all the complaining about those who only turn up at Church on Christmas and Easter. I realize that Pope Francis' off-the-cuff, impromptu style is often imprecise much to his own detriment, but I think it is really these attitudes, from which I suffer at times, are the targets of his sometimes blunt words.

Yeah, didncha know?

All of this ought to bring us to a clear decision point each and every Advent. The question we need to answer is, "Do we want to make a pedantic point, or create the conditions for an encounter?" Pope Francis has repeatedly called on us to actively create conditions under which we truly "encounter" others, especially those on the margins and those with whom we may differ on fundamental matters, most, if not all of whom, do not share our beautiful faith in Christ, which is a gift from God. In an article from a few years back on the origins of Pope Francis' call to create places of encounter, Michael Sean Winters provided a succinct description: "The capacity to encounter is about the Christian’s stance towards the world and especially towards other persons, the ability, achieved through grace, to stand towards the world as Christ stood towards the world."

Wasn't Christ's taking on human flesh first in the womb of the Blessed Virgin and then in the manger in Bethlehem precisely to create an encounter? Wasn't His dying, rising, ascension, and sending the Holy Spirit- by whom and through whom He remains present in us and among us- done to create the conditions for and possibility of an encounter? What will His glorious return be if not the beginning of the unending encounter for those who seek Him, who recognize "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"?

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