Well, we’re all still here. We’ve passed the Mayan apocalypse. Now we can let down our guard and go back to Christmas as usual. Except “the usual” seems somehow different this year.
The heaviness of Newtown still weighs upon me. The dysfunction of Washington was on full display this week. Fear is in the air. Everybody seems to be talking about how to be more safe. I’m feeling more vulnerable, more exposed both physically and spiritually.
“Are you ready for Christmas?” we cheerfully ask one another, by which we usually mean, “Is your house decorated? Is your shopping done? Are the presents wrapped? Are the cookies baked?” We crave “normal” because so much of our world seems so broken and messed up.
As I sat in our living room this week looking at our Christmas tree, something seemed wrong. The tree was decorated, the were lights on, music sat on the piano bench waiting for Will to call us to our nightly prayers. Then I noticed it. There are no presents under the tree this year for us. We are doing alternative giving as a family. The base of the tree is barren, empty except for the tree skirt with the cut out nativity figures. I began to panic. Have we done the right thing? Will the kids be disappointed? What if Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas? Maybe we should go out and buy some stuff.
Out of my anxiety, I kept staring at the empty space and thinking of ways to fill it, things that would make Christmas feel more like Christmas. One of the spiritual disciplines I’m trying to practice this year is that when I feel anxiety or fear rising up within me, I’m learning to stop and pray, inviting God into that space. As I was praying, my eyes fell again on the rumpled, empty tree skirt under the tree, the one with the roughly cut out nativity figures on it.
And God said to me: all that you need is here. This is my gift to you. Receive him. Suddenly the emptiness seemed right. My anxiety melted into trust, my fear into hope.
When I think of all the things we do to cover over our anxiety, to suppress our fear, to push back the darkness, it becomes clear to me that in the doing of these things, we are not really preparing for Christmas, we are not really becoming ready for God to come into the world. By filling our emptiness with busyness and covering our anxiety with self-assurance and suppressing our fear by bold proclamations of our self-sufficiency embodied by the multitude of “gifts” under our tree, we are in fact denying God a way in. We are saying to God, “we got this.” Our very readiness for Christmas may inhibit our readiness for God.
It is no surprise Gabriel came to visit a peasant virgin. I can imagine all of God’s many attempts to break through: to Caesar who trusted his armies more than God and Herod who trusted his exalted position in society; to the Sadducee who trusted institutional religion and the Pharisee who trusted the law; to the rich who trusted their wealth and the insurrectionist who trusted their arms.
Who else would listen but a peasant girl with nothing to lose? And so, in times like this, I am reminded that salvation does not depend on me. It does not depend on my busyness or success, my illusions of self-assurance or self-sufficiency. Salvation does not depend on my strength, my wealth, my own ability or inability. Salvation is God’s gift, offered without price.
When I am weak, when my spirit falters, when I despair, when I cry out, when I let go of the illusions of security and make myself vulnerable, open, and available for God to act, then and only then am I ready for God.