Monday 24 December 2007

Happy Birthday, and Merry Christmas!

Dedicated to you, Mom and Dad, because a light lit and kept with love burns brighter than any other.

I hope you’re celebrating your birthday tomorrow.

Whether or not December 25 is your actual date of birth, and certainly the chances are pretty good that it isn’t, I hope you’ll at least take a few minutes, and hopefully longer, to consider the miracle that is you.

Because, when you were born, a light was born. The string of lights on your Christmas tree or your house, the defiant, eternal Shamash candle in your menorah, the first glint of sunrise after Laylat al-Qadr; each of these lights signals the beginning of something very important, something at once temporal and eternal. That something is your life.

I remember wondering once, given the paucity of written records at the time of Jesus Christ, how it came to be that the early founders of Christianity came to choose December 25 as the date to celebrate what was clearly the most important birth in their own lives. And I remember nodding in understanding when I learned the answer, from the venerable Joseph Campbell. The date, he explained, coincided with the winter solstice, the time of the year with the most hours of darkness in a single day. The solstice, of course, marks the precise moment at which the darkness stops growing longer and starts getting shorter. In other words, it marks the birth of the light.

Whoever said that Christmas was all about the children was right on every count. Our commercialization of Christmas has led us to interpret the most accessible meaning of this, that the meaning of Christmas is reflected in the way children’s eyes light up when they open their presents. This may be partly true, and I confess that I look forward to that very thing tomorrow morning, but children play a far more integral role in Christmas than this interpretation allows. Christmas is about the children, one child in particular, because there is nothing more worthy of celebrating than the continuation of life through another generation. Birth banishes death as surely as light banishes darkness, and therefore the birth of a child, in every imaginable way, deserves the biggest celebration of all.

If you look around you, you’ll see the Christmas story happening all around you, wherever and whenever someone is being born. If you know anyone who has recently given birth, or if you are someone who has, you’ll recognize the long and difficult journey through a wilderness of night (also known as labour) before finally arriving at a place of comfort. You’ll also know that, like the three wise men, those from near and far travel to see the newborn, bearing gifts and praising the child, their way illuminated not by a single star but by all the hope that that new life contains. From whatever nascent bed, be it a manger of straw or a receiving blanket of linen, the beginning of an entire life is an event worthy of a heavenly host of angels.

And those singing angels are all over the place, too, present in all those who stand up in front of a crowd and sing what they really mean. Whether they are singing to God, singing to Jesus, singing to each other, or singing to you, they are raising their voices in song to celebrate the life we all share, your life and mine. Whether they are singing about the life started at their own births, or about the lives that followed from the births of others, they are carolers out to praise the most important birth in their lives. If you can’t hear them singing, if you don’t think that they are singing to you, or about you, it is not because they are not singing, it’s because you aren’t listening.

It’s because you have not yet discovered what they know; that if you’re going to sing, then really sing; in a choir, in a church, in a group, in the shower if you have to, but don’t mumble, and don’t worry about what you sound like to your neighbour, or how embarrassing it is to be heard when everybody else around you is quiet. If the words mean nothing to you, then don’t sing along. If you have addressed a crowd, or even a group, you likely understand how much power there is in saying something, clearly and with confidence, out loud in front of a group of people. Imagine, then, how empowering it must be to sing with joy for those same people. And then imagine how it must feel if you what you are singing is what you really mean, what you really love, and you believe it so strongly that you are burning to sing it so that everyone else knows it.

If you do nothing else this Christmas, if the spirit of the season strikes you as nothing more than veneer brushed over the surface of another inanimate object without any value other than commercial, I ask only that, after reading this, you take just a few moments to identify something about your life that is worth singing about in this way. On the other hand, if Christmas for you is about Jesus, and singing to Christ is empowering, then sign your heart out. Even if Christmas for you is about getting together with your friends and playing Guitar Hero until your arms fall off, then, by all means, let it all out and howl for your life, because your life is something to howl about. Not always the current circumstances of your life perhaps, not the sometimes painful past and the always uncertain future, but the fact of your life, the fact that you are alive. Christmas is a celebration of birth and of life, and the story of the birth of Jesus, the story that moves some to the most powerful song, is the story of your birth.

I leave you with what I consider a beautiful piece of Christmas music, though it has nothing to do with jingling bells or a large man in a red suit. I leave you with The King, Elvis Presley, cultural icon, fountain of charisma, a gigantic commercial success, at the top of his game in 1967, but never all that far away from his own manger of poverty and circumstance. I leave you with him throwing himself in praise before his God for having been given life, in order to appreciate its wonder, and singing a couple carefully chosen verses from the hymn How Great Thou Art. Whether you believe that he is singing into a divine pair of ears, or into a great nothingness, you will have to agree that he means what he says, and that the world is richer for the singing. Click play below, turn up the volume, close your eyes, sing along if you know it, and follow him to where he takes it.

However dim the light may seem at times, however buffeted by wind and surrounded by darkness, however shrouded by disease or disfigurement, the flickering, glowing flame that is life, the opportunity to behold this world of light for even an instant, is the greatest gift of all.

And, as far as I can tell from here, you are alive, and tomorrow is Christmas. So celebrate!

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