Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » December 2004 » Gem o'the day:

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12/25/2004: Gem o'the day:

I was going to leave things at the Thought of the Day; the "Save Merry Christmas" movement has me Grinchy (or make that Scroogy, if you prefer) enough that I can't post my own feelings on the issue, since I'm too likely to make comments that are potentially deeply offensive, more so than the situation deserves. But, like the letter writer quoted in the Thought for the Day, Sister Novena weighs in on the issue, and she says it like I'd like to say it, but much better:

But it's been a hard holiday for folks like me -- the conservative howl of victimization this year was about the deeply offensive way in which some people prefer to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." (Yes, that's the whole controversy. I know, it's crazy. That's modern America for you -- and old America as well, apparently.) Down here in the darkest south, one of the more common seasonal platitudes is, "Jesus is the reason for the season." Thing is, I'm not so sure he really is.

Think about it: Christmas existed long before Jesus came on the scene (albeit by a different name.) Whether you favor Saturnalia or Yule as the more likely proto-Christmas (looks like a bit of both to me), it's readily apparent that there isn't a whole lot about Christmas that wasn't already happening before the Christ part came into play. Oh, sure, there's all that nativity stuff -- virgin birth, magi, shepherds tending their sheep by night, wandering star, etc. etc. etc. -- but all of that's pretty demonstrably false (unless you're a fundie, in which case I'll leave you to your destructive delusions if you'll leave me to mine.) Virgin births, of course, were all the rage in the centuries and millenia preceding Jesus' birth; one of the major hallmarks of the modern era is the decided lack of miraculous virgin births -- might explain why we don't have real heroes anymore, since a virgin birth has always been de rigeur for any self-respecting god-among-men. But I digress.

No, I think that generally speaking, Jesus isn't, and never has been, the main "reason for the season," except in the fevered imaginations of his purported "followers." He's our current excuse, and not bad as an excuse for a party goes, but people were doing Christmas long before anyone had ever heard of either Christ or mass. Even the early Christians didn't celebrate Christmas; that was one of Constantine's ideas. It's not that I don't value the Jesus part of the holiday -- it's actually one of my favorite elements of the psychodrama that is our modern Christmas. It's just that, for me, the image of baby Jesus as part-time manipulative image and full-time lamb-to-the-slaughter doesn't do justice to the beauty of the nativity. I have never been able to stomach the ripped-flesh, Mel Gibson suffering Christ; I don't comprehend the view that looks only at the beginning and end of Jesus' life, but never at anything in between.

For me, Christmas is largely a reflection on one thing: Jesus as a representation of all of humanity. The nativity and its associations -- the angels, the wise men, the adoration, the hope and promise of grace contained in a new life -- is the kind of beginning that every newborn baby deserves, even if only one was ever deemed worthy by the theologians. And every newborn baby -- and thus every person everywhere -- ultimately contains the same potential. Jesus was an expression of the divinity that resides in every one of us; Christmas, therefore, is about recognizing the value not only of our own lives, but of the lives of everyone else as well. Peace on earth, good will to men, for on this day a child is born unto you, lying in a pile of rubble in someplace like Fallujah or Gaza or Mogadishu...

I know, I know... that's a pretty liberal interpretation. But Jesus was the first liberal, and it's high time those of us who still care about the things he cared about -- whether we consider ourselves Christians or not -- started to point that out. Fortunately, lots of people are doing exactly that -- Sojourners, a slew of progressive religious authors, even Thomas Jefferson and Kurt Vonnegut have a few words to add:
How about Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

And so on.

Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

"Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

Len on 12.25.04 @ 09:09 PM CST

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December 2004

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