When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”
Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God.
Turn off the TV. Put down the shopping list. Open the windows. Sit back, and read my Christmas.
It has nothing to do with shopping malls, unlimited long distance calls and spiked eggnog.
But everything to do with why most of us celebrate the “Christ” in a “mass.”
As a child, I used to celebrate with the birth of baby Jesus Christ in mind. It kept me humble, focused on what was right and true and made the holidays just a little extra-special, magical.
I never really believed in Santa Claus, a man-made piece of fiction picked up from a real saint somewhere in Europe and a mix of European traditions eventually capitalized in the United States as the number one means to sell successfully to mass consumers. I just went along with my parents, who half-heartedly went along with the program, simply because everybody else in the neighborhood did.
Like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and the Easter bunny, we went along with the crowd – rarely thinking about the deeper ramifications, if any, of our lemming behavior.
As an adult, I briefly dabbled in the commercialism. I even over-spent the budget one year, by about $1,000, on aloha shirts from Liberty House alone, for my husband. I did the whole last-minute shopping at the nearest 7-11, picking up cartons of ice cream, putting a bow on top (it doesn’t stick very well, wet), and handing these thoughtless gifts out to acquaintances I barely knew and only exchanged two words with throughout the entire past year. I gifted people, because they gifted me, out of guilt, duty and a bastardized kind of tradition. I made turkey with all the trimmings to go along with the Christmas carols I secretly hated from repetition and forced sentimentality, because it was expected of me.
I don’t anymore. The tree, the wrap, the elaborate meals... they’re all Eddie’s doing. And the entire focus has been on our child, as it should be. Christmas is for them, right?
For a long time, since my 30s if I’m honest, I haven’t felt the real meaning of Christmas as a Christian. I didn’t even feel a real meaning ever existed. Entire worlds had been blown to smithereens since learning of the real history involving Capt. James Cook, the pilgrims, Columbus, the Depression, civil rights, not exactly celebratory.
I did feel, however, that every assertion of fact that had been taught to me by my parents and teachers turned out to be a lie. Worse, a thinly veiled cover to manipulate me into being a good, respectful, law-abiding drudge, willing to blindly follow along with the rest of the mass consumers into the shopping malls of America.
Jesus Christ died ages ago. His memory remains a mystery and a hindrance to the shop keepers and the corporation executives whose only concern is making a profit at any expense, even by whoring the innocent, fragile, and malleable belief systems of a consuming public.
They vandalize ‘kreshes. They remove traces of Christ from Christmas carols. They transformed Santa into an acceptable form of secular worship, because he safely represents the spirit of credit card charges, extensions, and the ever-important profit margin – the only consequence being, income taxes in April.
I used to be ashamed of sending Christmas cards depicting the Nativity scene. I didn’t want to be accused of being a militant right-wing Christian trying to convert heathens, or throwing my Christian belief in their heathen faces. I didn’t even like sending cards. It never made sense to just sign my name to something some machine thought up in an assembly line fashion. I’d rather donate money, toys, food to the less fortunate in a family member’s or friend’s name, which this year, I did plenty of. (Next year, volunteering at shelters.)
Last Sunday morning, I stuck around after the choir sang to listen to Pastor Ken’s sermon from the Luke book in the New Testament. He’d warned us all that we’d probably heard a million and one versions of this Christ mass story. And, we had.
Until the part about Zechariah and Elizabeth, preceding the miraculous birth of Jesus. Elizabeth was a relation of Mary’s, and she was very old. She and her priest husband Zechariah tried to have children – in the Jewish faith, children are a blessing, an honor and a sign of acceptability in the community – but couldn’t. In today’s time, they’d be past grandparent age. But an angel first appeared to Zechariah, promising that Elizabeth would be with child, she will name him John, John will change lives, affect history and be a living testimony to the glory of God. The angel also gave Zechariah the exact date of the birth, to the month. Zechariah did not, could not believe, and so, was made mute (probably a stroke) until the birth. Elizabeth needed no further convincing, she gave birth, which was a miracle in and of itself, but then, she did the unthinkable, she named the boy a name nobody in the family tree had, an unusual and rare name of John. Today, that name is as common as ... James. The townspeople turned to the father, because the man’s word was final, and still mute, Zechariah confirmed in writing what his wife wanted.
John would grow up to become John, the Baptist, forcefully compelling people to believe in the coming of the Messiah and to cleanse their sinful past into a new life as a believer. John would personally baptize Jesus, and if my historic memory serves me correctly, John would be killed, his head cut off, stuck on a stake for all the world to see what happens to such forceful, unusual leaders.
I stopped reading along with Pastor Ken, closed my eyes and knew that if God blessed us with another child next year, I’d finally found a name. Eddie always wanted a daughter, and perhaps Jennifer Diana might arrive instead. But if it’s a son, as I have a feeling he will be, Zachary John Weber seems just about right.
The story continued into the more famous part, about Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth, heading into Bethlehem, trying to find lodgings, finding none for humans, went down below to where the animals were kept for the birth, the manger, the whole nine yards with the shepherds – considered dirty, low-life nobodies – and the Magi – mysterious, wealthy, studiers of the stars – and the angels that led them by a star to the Christ child.
If the people celebrating Santa Claus c/o Wal Mart, a decked-out tree c/o Pottery Barn, a potluck cocktail party c/o Martha Stewart meets Pampered Chef, clamoring for more loot, less religion, What did you get? Did you go shopping yet? I have so many presents to buy for my friends! She’s so hard to buy for, should I get a gift certificate? Is Alderwood Mall open 24 hours the last week of? ... if they had to plan the birth of Jesus Christ, they’d set him up in grand style, in the finest of palaces, with the best of medical help for the times, clothed in silks, satins, gold trim. The entire planet would acknowledge Jesus as savior, everybody would remark on how beautiful, perfect He was as a baby, such soft, creamy skin, such rosy cheeks, he never cries, his smile, two dimples, his parents are beautiful too, it explains the good genes, and Mary, she just gave birth and she looks so thin!, but Jesus, they might as well name him Apple...
Lucky for us, God organized his only begotten Son’s birth for maximum effect, with minimum fanfare, but for those symbolically and intrinsically attuned to the greatest miracle of humankind, outcasts in society, the people you never bother to look twice at, never speak to, they’re probably foreigners with diseases.
When Jesus grew into a man, he consorted with those types of people, the people Hollywood would never cater to, the people Hollywood would never do movies about or feature as actors. They could never get into the best nightclubs. Nobody would wait in five-mile-long lines to get their autographs, listen to them sing, watch them perform. They’re the ugly ducklings, plain Janes, wallflowers, losers, nerds, leftovers... just pass them by.
Jesus came from the outcasts. He was born in the equivalent of a ghetto, in filth, with animals, animal smells, animal feces and urine, covered in rags. There were no Pampers and onesies back then.
He touched lepers, prostitutes, cripples, the unclean, unkempt, the sinners the rest of the world gave up on. When the world killed him, held him up for ridicule, the outcasts honored him the only way they knew how, as outcasts.
It doesn’t surprise me that the greatest story ever told has been supplanted with the sexier, more glamorous tomes of this earth, probably read by Oprah on cassette, so we don’t have to, to serve our endless wants, self-centered egos, grandiose desires. We’ve forgotten that a being would come down here in this filth, walk amongst us, and let us touch Him in the most heinous of ways to prove our point that we’re... filth?
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that God works in the most simplest, ordinary of ways, through those least likely to receive acclaim.
God isn’t in a Britney Spears, Brad Pitt or a Bill Clinton.
He’s in a young woman who could not sing one note in key or on pitch. This young woman practiced in secret, tirelessly, and on her own became one of the most moving jazz-funk-gospel artists in Hawaii and Japan, as part of the now-defunct local band, Seawind, a band nobody on the Mainland has ever heard of.
He’s in a wifeless father with a young child, forced to go on welfare, to lie and get on board with a company at the bottom of the ladder, working days, sleeping on the company floors at night, sometimes washing up in subway station bathrooms with his boy, to become one of the most successful business brokers in the big city.
He’s in a blind grandmother who insisted on taking care of her blind, deaf quadriplegic teenaged grandson – abused as a baby by the boyfriend of her daughter, which caused the health afflictions – even though authorities tried to take him away from her several times.
He’s in an usher who decided to stay back, wait for a late-comer to a service, open the door for the young man with a smile, and only years later, come to realize that that young man was Billy Graham, a disbeliever who didn’t at first want to step in, but did because of that usher’s friendly welcome.
He’s in a little girl who could never believe she was pretty, smart and worthy enough to be noticed by anybody, not to be friends with, not to be loved by a husband, not to be depended on by a doting little boy, not to impact anybody else in any substantive way, because most people just walked on by, they never even noticed her standing there, some of them would even step on her feet or sit on top of her on the bus.
The little girl was verbally, and sometimes physically abused by her parents who never instilled in her any self-worth to begin with, her father always maintaining that she was a slut like her mother, her mother wishing she would be pretty like other girls. The little girl got beat up a lot by other kids because of the odd way she looked, that didn’t fit in with the rest of the pretty black and white crowd.
The little girl would stare at herself in the mirror when nobody was at home, certain that they were right, that she looked more like an ugly foreign boy, slanted eyes, tiny hairs on her upper lip, flat face, flattened on the back of her head too, stringy, tangled, dandruff hair, nothing but hate, anger and repulsion in that face. And so much pain, she’d pray to God every night from 5th through 8th grade to let her die in her sleep, save the world the misery.
She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t dance, she wasn’t good in school, her brother said she was too fat, her mother reminded her she needed to wear make-up, dress like a girl with some pride, her father never failed to reduce her into the reputation they made of her around the neighborhood as a wild savage, she didn’t get along well with others, she couldn’t even communicate well without skipping over her words, mumbling, mispronouncing, saying the wrong thing, saying it inappropriately. She got used to the blank stares, too, while she studiously avoided the mirror after awhile.
But He never gave up on her. He brought out the very flaws she believed worthless, and transformed them into assets, an uncanny ability to zero in on truth with unwavering courage, unflinching strength and unswerving vulnerability, to speak her mind even when such free speech has nearly cost her everything and everybody she ever held dear, to defend the defenseless with little thanks, to cast light on the shadows where others dare not look, because she’s lived there personally.
When she worried she’d never find another friend, He brought her friends from the most unlikely of places, from the Internet, a place most other people discount as any legitimate source, and one from church choir, an outgoing, vivacious Leo named Terrie who could hang out with anybody but chose her, because the former little girl could listen, laugh and just be without trying too hard.
He has taught her, gradually, that it is a blessing to be ignored by the world, that the people who notice and appreciate her are special, that when someone loves her, unlike so many others out there struggling with divorce and infidelity, he will love her forever, it’s for keeps. Her husband came – as with all things of God – in the most unlikely, quiet, simple and ordinary manner, in everyday conversation in front of a music store, about cameras, teeth and a gall bladder surgery.
And that before she was ever born, He saw her, chose her and put her here on earth for a reason. The reason will never be the grandiose Hollywood red carpet expected of the popular, beautiful people. The reason will be simple, ordinary, quiet, and so meaningful.
Jesus Christ provided the template of such a life in His humble birth.
As Pastor Ken said to the congregation last Sunday, so many of us take it for granted, that God works through the most humblest, most unexpected of origins and situations, in order for us to glorify Him. If it were as easy as charging $150 for a pink designer original, and having Martin Scorsese direct...
In my little corner of the world, He’s in the real reason we come together to celebrate Christmas. Not to amass shopping mall bounty. Not to out-decorate the neighbors with the latest pyrotechnics in reindeer motif. Not to get drunk at another family function and spend the following morning throwing up the fruit cake.
But to continue discovering the joys, blessings, and wonders of the things we take for granted, in ourselves and each other.
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