Sunday, December 25, 2011

Is there anything new to say?

As a preacher I've always found the big holidays big challenges.

What can the preacher say that hasn't been said a million times before? Or at least something that will awaken modern hearts and minds to the miracle of the event? This is pertinent today since I heard a noble attempt on Christmas morning. It was a noble attempt to give a new perspective on the event of the Nativity. It was noble, but didn't quite make it because it ultimately fell back on pious platitude.

You can try to do a first person narrative - a shepherd, or one of the donkeys, or one of the wise men. T. S. Eliot did that in his poem The Journey of the Magi. That poem has always moved me, though I admit that I don't half understand it, any more than I understand Yeats - who also moves me deeply. The problem with the first person narrative I heard this morning was that it was, finally, predictable. The character was Caesar Augustus - an interesting choice. But the outcome wasn't a new perspective on the relationship between Empire and Faith. The Emperor sees the triumph of the Crucified and regrets that he wasn't closer to the divine love revealed in the man from Nazareth.

Another approach is the approach by characters who've been affected by the Jesus story. For me there are three stories that move me at Christmas. First is a story from Tove Jansson, the Finnish Swedish author and poet. Her story "Gran" or Christmas Tree tells the story of Mumintroll's first Christmas. (The Mumin family hibernate through the winter.) At this first Christmas the Mumin family gather all the items you need for a Happy Christmas, but they gather them because they think that Christmas is a horrible monster who must be appeased. In the end they give away all the gifts, decorations and food to the lowliest of the little creatures of Mumin Valley.

The second story is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. At the end of that story one of the Herdmanns proclaims the Angelic message - "Hey You! Unto You A Child is Born!" as if it were the greatest news. Then the Herdmanns gave back the Christmas Ham and wandered off in tears, slightly dazed by what had happened.

The third story that moves me is Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory. The 1966 made for TV movie is on youtube for the time being. It's in 6 parts. This link takes you to part 1. The story is the story of a half crazy old lady and her little nephew, gathering the ingredients to make Christmas fruitcake. Capote captures the mystery of commitment to a cause that makes no sense.

Maybe for the ancient religious holidays to make new sense you have to see them as if you were one of the poor little ones who have nothing - or one of the bad kids who is suddenly thrust into unexpected and unwanted territory as an angel - or a crazy old lady and her simple assistant. Maybe that's what I miss when I try too hard to find something new to say about this antique belief.

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