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Monday, December 04 2006 19:00
“It’s Christmas time,” writes an old friend in Kalamazoo. “I think of it as a spark of light at the darkest and coldest time of year, at least here where I live. I think of it as a very ordinary feast, celebrating a most undistinguished birth in a place that was only a distinction to a very small group of people.”

“To most of the world,” my friend continues referring to Bethlehem, “it was a hamlet inhabited by a few tradesmen and the families of a few sheepherders nestled into some not very high hills on the edge of a not very distinguished capital city of a Roman satrap state called Palestine.”

My friend has captured much of the spiritual meaning delivered in the Christmas event. Its material austerity and its ordinariness – the birth of a child into a poor family among people on the lowest rungs of society – this event in these circumstances is something most people of the world find easy to relate to.

It’s all so simple. You don’t need a Ph.D. in biblical studies to grasp its meaning. And yet, this event allows you to enter further and further into it through contemplation and prayer.

The genius of the Christian tradition is best shown in the two basic events at the beginning and end of Jesus’ life – his birth and his death. Since these are the universal experiences of being human, they speak simply but eloquently about the meaning of our existence.

Birth is a call to wonder, to awe, to joy at the coming of a new person into the world. That is how the birth of a neighbor’s child struck me last month. I watched his mother grow larger during the summer and fall and, as a neighbor, also looked forward to the day of her delivery. When it happened, I felt some share in the joy that the infant’s parents experienced.

When my own child was born, twenty-one years ago, I felt the full force of the mystery. Seeing her emerge from her mother’s womb filled me with strong emotions of pity, fear, and unprecedented joy. Though inevitably the full force of the wonder connected with it has receded, still her being and growth give me cause for continued awe.

The birth of Jesus, prayerfully contemplated, stirs in spiritual seekers wonder at the mystery of it all. And yet it carries this mystery in the midst of ordinariness, the same as happens the world over to people who have little by way of possessions, power, or influence.

In the birth of Jesus, one also confronts hope. My friend presumably means something like this when he describes it as a “spark of light.” This light in darkness does not mean the same as optimism, however. Rather, it places confidence in divine power, not human. After all, the human enterprise always remains far from success. In the land where Jesus was born, people are still killing one another at an alarming rate.

For many people, the world is always dark and cold. And for others of us, it is that way at least some of the time. As M. Scott Peck says starkly at the very beginning of “The Road Less Traveled,” his wildly popular spiritual classic: “Life is difficult.” The beginning of Jesus’ life gives a hint of the experiences that will mark much of his life: struggle and oppression..

As always, the nativity scene raises questions about worldly possessions. Those who first encounter Jesus do not have much. Perhaps this frees them to see more deeply into the meaning of the event than those burdened with too much ever can. That is the experience of many spiritual seekers: we find that our hold on possessions and our constant desire for more become obstacles to our growth in spirit.

These sober thoughts, however, should not be allowed to take away the joy of this day. To those who share faith in Jesus, at least, and for many others too, Christmas serves as a happy event indeed. “Joy to the World” says the carol. Seekers can open themselves to let this joy flow in and learn to place a greater value on their own lives and on those whom they love.

Richard Griffin