Christmas in July


This past summer my family visited friends in Italy. We spent three weeks touring around mostly the southern half of mainland Italy — Naples and the Amalfi Coast especially. In this region in summer, the weather is tropical. Palm trees, humid air, full sun and temperatures soaring. We wore shorts and sandals, t-shirts and hats the entire time.

One of our highlights was visiting the Green, or Emerald, grotto near Positano on the Amalfi Coast. We had to take an elevator down from the snaking roadway to the water line. Then, we entered small boats for a tour around the cave.


The grotto was named “Emerald” for the incredible colours that filter from an underground opening and fill the cave with intense nuances of green. The inside of the cavern is filled with stalagmites, stalactites and beautiful works of art created by time and nature.

Near the end of the tour when the boat was paddled close to a wall of the cave, our tour guide asked us to look down into the sparkling, luminescent water on the one side of the boat. “What do you see?” he prompted us. For the longest time, I could see nothing, just the rippling waters.

Then, as the light continued to play on the currents swirling some ten feet underneath us, I saw it:

The grotto is home to an underwater nativity scene, made by a ceramics artisan from nearby Vietri in 1956. Since that time, divers from all over Italy come to pay a visit to the Holy Family at Christmas. But it wasn’t Christmas.

For me, the traditional nativity set felt out of place – a kitsch decoration in a natural, marine setting in a tropical paradise. From my Canadian perspective, it felt all wrong. This didn’t belong here.

It was the least-expected time and place to be reminded of Christmas. Christmas in July, where temperatures were well into the 30 degree celsius range, far away from home on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. On vacation. Christmas was the farthest thing from my mind!

In the Christmas children’s book by Eve Bunting, entitled, “We Were There: A Nativity Story”, she illustrates how the least expected animals very likely also attended the birth of Jesus: a snake, a frog, a scorpion, a cockroach, a bat, a spider and a rat.

It is written from the perspective of these least likely characters who are thankful for the more popular donkeys, sheep and cows who are “so generous to share their place” by the side of the manger. She concludes:

No one will look beyond the light to darkness
and the corner where we watch, unwatched.
They will not know or care.
But we were there. (1)

This children’s book makes a deep, theological point! The problem: We don’t see that God is there. We only expect to see God in certain places, at certain times:
Only at Christmas once a year in a crowded, decorated church;
Only in warm, comfortable stables where clean sheets and cutesy animals surround a quiet baby lying in the arms of a domicile Mary;
Only when good times roll with egg nog at the hearth of a roaring fire sitting in your favourite chair;
Only when choristers sing your favourite carols;
Or, only when everything is perfect.

We’ve locked God into the proverbial box.

The good news: God blows all our contrived and constricted expectations. God comes to us in all times and places, especially when we least expect it, even when we are not thinking about it, or planning for it.

While the dominant Christmas culture depends on our planning and organizing and ‘setting it up’, God comes to us despite all our fussing and fretting.

In truth, God is already there, just beneath the surface, out of the reach of the light, in the shadows where no one is looking or even caring.

Our job is not to make God happen by all our toiling and efforts to create the best Christmas ever. We don’t achieve God’s presence. Our job is simply to recognize where God is already present. Our job, simple though not easy, is to surrender to God who is already there. And this takes practice and intention.

So, this Christmas holiday, take a walk downtown where street people continue to ask for money. This Christmas holiday, search out an old friend with whom you haven’t spoken for a long time. This Christmas holiday, do something that you normally would not do, for the common good. This Christmas holiday, recognize the gifts you already have, not just in those presents packed under the tree.

Give thanks for the gifts you enjoy every day of the year — friends, family, love, community — the blessings that come from learning to want what you have instead of having what you want. Exercise the skill of seeing where and what many will not.

The joy of Christmas be with you. The gift of life and love in Jesus is born anew in our very lives. Today. And no matter where you are and whatever the circumstance of your life. God is already with you, waiting to be seen.

(1) – Eve Bunting, “We Were There: A Nativity Story” (Clarion Books, New York, 2001)

Turning into the wind

We were just down the street from Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Late in the evening after the first day’s sessions at the Synod Assembly last week, I walked along Dixon Road which goes right to the airport. 

At one point on a bridge you can stand directly underneath the path and roar of landing planes. You look west in the direction of the landing, and you see the long runway lighted brilliantly for the descending jets touching down. You look in the opposite direction towards the east, and you can see a long line of planes taking their turn in the landing rotation, the dots of their lights extending in a straight line far into the distant sky.

It was a windy day, the gusts reaching over 50 km/h from the south. What impressed me was how each plane’s nose was turned slightly to the left, towards the south, as they made their final approach. The planes were coming in on a straight line, yes, but turned towards the wind in order to keep their landing true. At the last second before touching down, the jet would straighten out.

Wind, like currents in the water, is a significant if not main factor in affecting the flight or sail of the airborne or water craft. In order to land safely and soundly, the planes had to face the challenging issue head on. In the words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians, the problem must be “detected” (Galatians 6:1) and exposed. 

You will get nowhere in a plane or boat unless you ‘dance with the devil’ so to speak. Unless you look your problem square on, face it and name it, and change your position accordingly. If the landing planes insisted on keeping their plane aligned straight on their approach, they would not have made their landing on the runway, but somewhere to the north of it!

Our guest at the Synod Assembly, Bishop Munib Younan (president of the Lutheran World Federation) spoke of Lutheranism. He warned us, that in these Reformation Anniversary years, we do not celebrate ourselves. We do not pretend that God couldn’t have done anything good without us. We are not the perfect church, but always reforming.

Being Lutheran, he said, is a call to humility, not a spirit of triumphalism. We dare not make an idol out of Martin Luther or his legacy in us.

Paul strongly exhorts the Galatian church to proceed with one another in humility and gentleness, not lording it over others who are ‘sinners’. Because we ourselves are no better. We must learn to face our own demons. This is what is meant by his words: “All must test their own work … for all must carry their own loads (v.4-5).” We dare not point fingers without first acknowledging our own stuff.

This is then, how we bear one another’s burdens. Amidst the conflict wreaking havoc in the early church in Galatia, Paul encourages the people to persist in not losing heart, to have courage and not give up.

As the Gospel text for today describes (Luke 10:1-11), the work of the church doing God’s mission in the world will result in friction and struggle. You cannot follow Christ and not encounter conflict and adversity in your life. 

The famous Psalm 23 so often associated with bringing comfort and evoking peaceful, calming images includes this disturbing verse: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” (Psalm 23:5). It feels like this verse doesn’t belong beside still waters and green pastures along paths of righteousness. But it does belong! It means that God gives us the gift of grace in the presence of all that challenges us, all our demons internal and external, everything that we may not like in our lives — not apart from it.

Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians by focusing our attention on the cross of Christ (6:12,14) — the symbol of death and suffering of a God who goes the distance to love us. This is the only reality about which to “boast”. Why?

There is a treasure in the midst of the suffering. We may not see it right away. Yet, our struggle does yield something good, something meaningful, something liberating. Yes, we are liberated by God’s grace. 

Liberated however not by ‘nicey-nicey, goody-goody’ — a phrase our Bishop Michael Pryse used at Synod to describe an approach to church life that just keeps us stuck. Liberated not pretending to live a charmed life. Not by everything working out perfectly. But liberated through what may be a terrible suffering, a loss, the very pain that would otherwise destroy a person altogether. There is a treasure therein.

That is why we boast of the cross, and nothing else. How can God be found in the painful letting go that marks the various stages of life? How can we even sense or feel God’s presence in the midst of a grief too heavy to bear? How can we move on through the turbulence of change and transformation?

In his short book, “Rules for a Knight”, actor-writer Ethan Hawke recounts the last words of instruction by a renowned knight, Thomas, to his children:

“There is a memory that won’t let me go,” Thomas begins. “Last summer all you children were playing by the ocean. We were with your mother and her sister’s family, do you remember? The weather was sublime, streaks of sun and a deep blue sky. You four and all your cousins were building castles with the warm, muddy sand. Each of you kept your castle separate, announcing, ‘This one is mine!’ ‘That’s yours!’ ‘Stay away from mine!’

“When all the castles were finished, your cousin Wallace playfully stepped on Cven’s. Lemuel, you flew into a protective rage. You were only looking out for your sister, I know. Mary-Rose, you thought Lemuel was over-reacting, and you threw him to the ground. Next, everyone was fighting, throwing sand, howling with tears, and pushing one another. Young Wally had to be taken home, sobbing in your aunt’s arms.

“When he was gone, you all went back to playing with your castles for a little while but quickly moved on to swimming. It grew cloudy, and soon it was time for us to begin the journey home. No one cared at all about their castle anymore. Idamay, you stamped on yours. Cven, you toppled yours with both hands. We all went home. And the gentle rain washed all the castles back into the surf.

“Please be kind to one another,” Thomas concludes. (1)

What are the castles in your life? Things or issues that in five to ten years won’t really matter anymore? Things for which you might lay your life down now in heated, compulsive reaction, but really won’t endure — material possessions, opinions that merely shore up a vulnerable ego, beliefs that have outlasted their use? A spirit of judgement and condescension towards people who do not experience life like you do? A reputation to defend at all costs? etc. etc. What are your castles in the sand?

“My friends,” writes Saint Paul, “if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Around the same time Philo of Alexandria wrote: “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Turning into the wind may be a basic operation for landing a plane. When I face the wind and continue paddling or cycling into it, tears will come to my uncovered eyes. There are tears that come in the face of God’s Spirit, a Spirt that will blow down castles built in the sand.

This wind also has the power, like the Spirit of God, to build endurance, strengthen my inner life and take me where I need to go. If I stay with it, often more rapidly than I would on my own!

May God’s wind blow surely and true in your life this summer. May you receive grace in turning to the wind.

(1) – Ethan Hawke, “Rules for a Knight”, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2015, p.148-149