Saturday, December 10, 2011

We need a little Christmas

I really like this version of the Nativity called Adoration of the Shepherds, painted by Martin Schongauer about 1480, now hanging in Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie. Not because of the Europeanized Holy Family so much --- but because of the ox and the ass (see Isaiah 1:3). Aren’t they wonderful?

The ox especially, who reminds me of Hortense, a Guernsey my dad milked on a regular basis, twice a day like clockwork, when I was a kid. Hortense was named after Hortense Guernsey, a high school teacher to both my parents. She (the cow) was a blonde and didn’t have horns. But still …

I especially like to think about Hortense the Guernsey on Christmas Eve, kneeling down in the barn to honor the baby Jesus at midnight --- along with her Guernsey and Angus sisters and all the other critters scattered around the barnyard (but can a chicken kneel?). Seriously.

Curled up under a comforter in that unheated upstairs bedroom, I knew that none of this really had happened, or was happening at the time. But I liked to think about it on Christmas Eve anyway --- and still do.

Can’t say how this little Christmas legend, expressed in the carol “Good Christian Men Rejoice” (ox and ass before him bow) entered my head. The folks told the Christmas story straight --- even defused Santa legends from the get-go. Not likely it came from them. But it’s a part of Christmas I enjoy.


In fact, there’s not much about Christmas that I don’t enjoy, taken in moderation. And all that came to mind yesterday while reading the Rachel Held Evans blog, an entry titled Blessed are the entitled? recycled from last year. The comments just keep coming.

The gist of the post is this --- that some Christians, feeling entitled, shoot themselves in the foot at Christmas (or during Advent, if you like) by fussing about the fact clerks wish them “Happy Holidays” (derived from holy day, by the way) rather than “Merry Christmas,” or that Nativity scenes rarely appear on courthouse lawns these days. That sort of thing. Most of the commenters, by the way, aren’t unduly distressed --- although some clearly are.

I’m not entirely sure what the fuss is all about, but it may well be that an unwarranted sense of entitlement makes Chiristians lazy, and not just at Christmas. Like the current belief in what we sometimes call the right wing of the church that the best way to halt a perceived drift away from Christian values, and Christianity, is to force the state to impose those values and that faith. Despite the fact this has never worked well.

We all know that Jesus most likely wasn’t born on Dec. 25 --- September or October, even November, are more likely. That this time around the winter solstice, when the days are shortest and the cold is growing deeper, has been marked in the northern hemisphere for as long as there have been humans running around here. That early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas at all, until the church attached the Christ Mass to the season. And that many of our Christmas customs and symbols, from fire and to pine boughs , are not exclusively Christian.

What is exclusively Christian is the mystery of the Incarnation --- and self-professed Christians who lose sight of that during the season established to celebrate it would seem to have only themselves to blame.

Whaever the case, it's cold out there and there's a lot of worry and sadness. People are yelling at each other, and it's not clear things are going to get much better in the new year.

So I'm standing in solidarity with Auntie Mame: “For I've grown a little leaner (fatter, actually), grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older; And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder. Need a little Christmas now.”

And that will include, in due time, Hortense the Guernsey kneeling in the barn on Christmas Eve.

1 comment:

MK said...

Hi Frank,
My mother and my uncle had Hortense Guernsey in school in the 1930's, and until they passed just a few years ago, persisted in telling stories of her teaching techniques, and their admiration for her. She must have been a compassionate and blindingly intelligent woman as her impact reached into the future long after her death, once again just weeks ago when I instructed my daughter to trace 1066 on her forehead with her finger, as Hortense did with my mother's class, so she would not forget the Norman invasion of England. God bless teachers, every one. MK