Wednesday, December 2, 2009

great light

Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?

-- A Christmas Carol

This son of mine was dead, and is alive again.

-- Luke 15:24 (KVJ)

Scrooge gets to see his death. That’s his blessing, and his chance to live.

We die for what we have lived for, but what if we’ve been dead for a while? Good thing we can change trajectories, even in the last chapter, on the last page, in the last sentence.

We can’t do it alone. We don’t have to do it alone. Scrooge had an incorrigible nephew, who imposed good cheer and generosity where it was not wanted. More blessed, and more terrifying, to receive than to give. Living is an exchange, an economy, a relationship. It’s not enough to demonstrate your power; you must admit your need. If you dump a giant turkey on the Cratchits, you must pay for it by accepting bounty from those who know how to rejoice. The self-made are the self-damned.

The prodigal son had a father who didn’t just wait for him to come home but watched for him, who saw him from afar and met him with food and drink, forgiveness and tears. It’s the beginning of penitence. To be born again is to lose control: we have to let the others make a fuss. You say you don’t deserve it; but to hell with your deserving, it’s not about that any more.

The prodigal had a brother who famously lacked generosity, but what the brother lacked first was grace. He never made himself comfortable in the father’s abundance: “Thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” What the grumpy son wants cannot be given, because it already belongs to him – “All that I have is thine. The brother’s joyless service is a lie. If he had served truly he would have made merry. He says he deserved better, but to hell with his deserving, it’s so last year.

In the Christian calendar this is the month of Advent, the time when God comes to us. It’s no accident that God comes in the time of darkness, when the sun threatens to disappear. We walk a lot in darkness now, and Isaiah says that we will see a great light.

At Newgrange in Ireland, if you are one of a lucky few, winners of a lottery, you walk sixty feet into a passage tomb before dawn, and when the sun comes up on solstice it shines around you into the chamber of death. You get to see the great light not in spite but because of your walk into darkness. This light is only for those who have so walked.

Yule, solstice, Christmas – they’re not for optimists. Only if you live in a dark land will the light shine on you. If you’re living in a nice development with up-to-date eco-friendly streetlights, a golf course and no sidewalks, sorry but it’ll take its course without you.

The story says that God came to us not as a king but as a baby, born in a humiliated backwater of empire, to a migrant worker and his bride carrying a child not his, nestled in a feeding trough for cattle. But kings took notice, they say. Some wanted to kill the child, while others traveled long distances at night, following a great light, to bring gifts. If you travel by day you won’t find him.

What are we trying to teach ourselves with stories like this? New Life doesn’t come in increments. You can’t earn it, save up for it, put it on layaway or make installment payments. New Life comes after death of the old. An old man sees his name on the stone. A father takes back the son who had sunk below the level of beasts.

Scrooge has a logic, and the grumpy brother is on the way of Scroogery. The logic is, never let go of anything because you won’t get anything back. Don’t love because those you love may die. Don’t give because what you have can be taken away. Don’t trust because those who do are exploited. It makes sense. But it doesn’t make life.

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