we have an advent calendar shaped like a christmas tree. at its base is a tray that contains ornaments of various colors and patterns that attach to the tree magnetically. each day during the season, i add another ornament to the tree, counting down to christmas. on christmas day, there is a large star to top the tree. i look forward each year to filling the tree with ornaments as the big day approaches.
as i reflected on what christmas means to me, i thought about all the clichéd phrases we use to describe the meaning of the day that is so important in the christian calendar. christmas is probably all those things--a time of new beginnings, of hope, of light in the darkest time of the year. for me, it is a mark of the rapid passage of time. my advent calendar fills with ornaments so quickly, and before i know it, it's time to put the star on the top. my wife and i are celebrating our 48th christmas together, and we are both observing our 70th christmas. it seems as if only a short time ago, i was a wide-eyed child jumping with excitement on christmas morning and an even shorter time since my wife and i celebrated our first christmas together.
how could so many years have elapsed so quickly? coming, as it does, so close to the end of the old year and the start of the new, i suppose it is natural to associate december 25 with replacing the old calendar with a new one and beginning a new year, filing the old one away in our memories. i think there is more to it than that, though. christmas reminds of events that happened so many years ago, in a place and time that are very different from our own. it reminds us of oppressive occupiers of a tiny land in which the baby was born. it reminds us of cruel kings that would slaughter innocents to protect their thrones. it reminds us of the universality of a mother's love. it calls us to look back at events even further removed from the day of jesus' birth: to ancient lands, to earlier religions that called humankind to lives of peace and virtue, to cultures so different from ours and yet so similar in many ways.
christmas means looking back for me, back through the eons of time and remembering how much we have in common with those who have gone before us. the present reminds us of the cycle that repeats over and over: cruelty, selfishness, bigotry, and fear of those who are superficially different are eternal, but so is kindness, concern for others and the natural world, love, respect for one another. in the face of all that is wrong with the world, there are religions and philosophies that assert what is right with the world. the birth of a baby in an obscure place that christians celebrate at christmas was not the beginning of the search for what is right, but a continuation of it, a reminder that there are many lights piercing the darkness.
may this season bring joy in the face of sadness, hope in the face of fear. may we be reminded that kindness ultimately defeats cruelty, but the selfishness from which that cruelty is born continually reasserts itself, making the need for love and kindness all the more important. may we love unconditionally and without reason. regardless of our religion or lack thereof, may we have "happy holidays!" shalom.