When the gift seems strange

Because of the nature of my work, I cannot travel, like many Canadians do, to warmer climes during the holidays. I confess having fantasized celebrating Christmas Day or Easter morning in the tropics.

I imagine watching a sunrise over the liquid horizon, feeling the warm ocean breezes on my sun-bronzed skin and hearing the crackle of palm leaves above me. I squish my toes into the still-cool pristine sands beneath me and breathe in the salty air. I turn to those sharing the scene beside me, and say: “Merry Christmas”. And we burst into singing together, over the thunder of the crashing surf nearby, “Silent Night, Holy Night”.

I have to confess, I would like to experience this one day. I’m putting it on my bucket list. But I wonder: Will I then miss the typical experience of us northerners who are familiar with a winter setting for the celebration of these holy events? Will I feel I have missed something integral to the experience of a Christmas celebration without the frigid temperatures and snow-laden environs?

Those of you who have experienced a Christmas in a setting that is totally foreign to our typical Canadian winter climate, I’m interested in hearing from you. How did you feel? What did you think? Would you do it again?

As I reflect on our time-worn traditions, I confess how often I put so much emphasis on the ‘window dressing’ of the event, as if what makes the experience enjoyable for me depends on decisions I make or on how much I can control the circumstances. However, in all truth, achieving that ‘picture perfect’ Christmas depends in large part on forces beyond my control; for example, the weather. So, I am caught in-between pretending I can manage an ideal experience whose outcome is ultimately beyond my control.

The real question, therefore, is: How can I receive the gift of Christmas despite the circumstances of my life?

After the worship, we are holding our now annual ‘Epiphany potluck lunch’. Considering the origin of this church tradition, we are practising the spiritual discipline of receiving a gift, unexpectedly. Some of the first potluck meals in North America were held in 1843 at St Paul’s Church in Chicago, which served a large wave of German immigrants swelling Chicago. They held regular potlucks — communal meals where guests brought their own food (from a paper written by Daniel Sack on the social meaning of church socials).

But the original practice was in the spirit of spontaneity. The food was provided for an unexpected guest, but according to the ‘luck of the pot’. There was little or no control over what kinds of food people brought. Yet, attendees rejoiced in whatever they received, however mismatched or unbalanced the contents of meal ended up being. It was, after all, a gift.

In the Christmas story called “The Fussy Angel” which I read in worship on Christmas Eve, the angel assigned by God to look over the Christ child on the night of his birth was frustrated with the imperfect, out of control, events surrounding the Holy Birth.

He chastised the Wise Men for their pricey and pretty yet wholly impractical and useless gifts. “If you were truly wise,” griped the angel, “you would have known that what we need is hot water and towels; goat’s milk and bread; twenty diapers and some soap to wash them with.” Not gold, frankincense and myrrh! (p.15-16, Mary Arnold, “The Fussy Angel”, Ignatius Press, 1995). Yet, the Christ child accepts these gifts, however impractical.

The gifts, of course, hold symbolic meaning: the gold – for a king; the spices – used in burial practices of the time.These gifts point to the identity and purpose of God made human in Jesus Christ, whose destination was the Cross and the empty tomb of Easter.

Admittedly, the whole story about astrologers bringing strange gifts to a child in a strange land sounds somewhat exotic, not real.  It is filled with strange incidents, strange gifts, and strangers encountering one another.

At the same time, there is meaning here. Should we but pause to consider the deeper, sometimes hidden, levels of our experience we may appreciate the gift anew, however strange.

The movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (Fox Searchlight, 2012) tells of a group of seniors who head off to an inexpensive retirement home in exotic India. As unfamiliar and sometimes frustrating as the experience is, when one character asks why he likes it so much, he replies: “The lights, the colours, the vibrancy; the way people see life as a privilege, not as a right.”

Perhaps Epiphany can open our eyes as well to the holy revealed in what we may have previously thought of as strange, foreign, outside our experience.

Perhaps you have celebrated Christmas and New Year’s this year differently from ‘the norm’ — in a different setting, with different people, outside your comfort zone. Perhaps this Christmas was the first without a loved one. Or, perhaps your life circumstances are changing due to ill health. Admittedly, these are all situations to which, on the surface, we may react even reject outright if we had a choice.

But the Christ child teaches us something important: He didn’t reject those outlandish, impractical and useless gifts brought to him by, of all people, foreigners from the East. Instead, he welcomed them into their home with giggles, gurgles, and laughter.

And this grace, this gift of freedom, is infectious. It liberates us to receive and rejoice in the gifts of life, however small and strange they may at first appear.

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