“Am I too late for breakfast?”
“Nah, you’re fine. Actually, I think you’re just too late, period!” He has two eggs cracked and scrambled in a bowl by the time he says this. “Nah, I’m just tranna be a smart-ass!” he adds. His wagon is on a desolate stretch of 8th Street between Vine and Spring Garden, with no one for custom or company but Teamsters–striking the Red Cross–and poor saps emerging from traffic court. He is ready to talk.
“I think the whole god-damn world is too late for somethin’. The Jews say Jesus ain’t God, the Muslims say the Jews ain’t the chosen people, the Buddhists say it’s all bullshit. Christmas is comin’. You heard about the banks? Payin’ back all that bail-out money so they can give themselves their bonuses. It’s all about the money; the whole world is all about the money.”
By this time I had my eggs and cheese on a roll, and as I ate, I realized that this culinary philosopher had pretty succinctly described a phenomenon that the Vedas call maya– a word that is usually translated as “illusion,” but which more broadly denotes the fundamentally busted condition of a world that does not perform as advertised, and all the contradictions and perplexities it gives rise to.
Ecclesiastes, whose near-pagan direness makes it arguably the edgiest book of the Hebrew Bible, (it concludes with an editorial insertion advising the reader to “go no further than this,”) captures this sense of futility:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; everything is vanity! All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea is never filled; the sun rises, and sets, and hastens to the place where it rises. What does a man gain by all the labor at which he toils under the sun? All is vanity and chasing after wind.[i]
Christmas both mutes and heightens this impression that something under the sun is ferhoodled. On the one hand, people are often more civil and decent to each other. On the other, anything painful or ugly stands out more glaringly against the festive background, even taking on a tint of moral injustice. If people die in June, it’s sad; if they die in late December, it’s “a shame.”
One especially wants the season to be magical for children, and this desire for things to be a certain way intensifies the disappointment when the world just goes on being itself. In Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie and Neely Nolan go at midnight on Christmas Eve to a neighborhood tree vendor to take advantage of the local custom of throwing unsold trees at people; whoever is not knocked down may take the tree home for free. When the vendor sees the two kids, eight and ten years old, with “starveling hollows” in their cheeks but their chins still “baby round,” he undergoes “a kind of Gethsemane.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go. What’s the tree to me? I can’t sell it no more this year and it won’t keep till next year…But then,” he rationalized, “if I did that,…next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They’d all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate. I ain’t a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin’…I gotta think of myself and my own kids.
Ultimately, the spirit of maya trumps the spirit of Christmas.
“Oh, what the hell! Them two kids is gotta live is this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.” As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, “It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!”
In spite of the rottenness, or maybe because of it, I still cling to the Christmas season–can still smell, on a good day, the incense from the Ghost’s benedictory torch. And whatever else I may have failed in as a Dad, I am proud of how my children love Christmas: as a whole month-long global experience of carol singing and Christmas-book reading and cookie-baking and Advent-wreath lighting. Sophie sat on the couch this morning, singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to herself while looking at the pictures of each day in a book.
I can still vividly see my two-year-old firstborn opening a gift from my Dad and flapping her little arms in excitement when she saw the Fisher-Price toy nativity scene in the box. “KWAYSH!” she crowed, her face beaming. They still play make-believe games together with the figures, improvising little midrashes on the Holy Family’s adventures. (The puppy chewed up a sheep this year; in fact, one of the sheep in my parents’ crèche has a missing leg for the same reason; we had to lean it against the side of the stable throughout my childhood.) More than once I have come downstairs and seen Clare with her chin on her hands, staring at the traditional crèche my parents gave me when I left home. It brings me up short; I stand before me as a living child.[ii]
When we are children, we can enter the story with abandon, but as maya does its number on us over the years, our inner vision is clouded and we lose sight of the star. We can no longer find Jesus in the manger, so we stop looking for Him in the office, the street, our homes. The baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” fades from our intention, and eventually even from our awareness. We become tourists in our own faith.
As it turns out, the Christmas story, in its historical detail, may be largely spurious. So what, then, is the point of telling it? Does it matter that Jesus was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem, but rather in the backwater hill-town of Nazareth where he grew up? That by his time, peoples’ understanding of prophecy had devolved from the speaking of God’s word to an erring world to soothsaying and fortune-telling, and that the later Gospel writers felt the need to place His birth where Isaiah seemed to have “foretold”? The writer of the earliest Gospel—Mark’s—didn’t even think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth worth recording.
And it won’t do to use the story as a means of obviating the pain of human life. By all means, have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be bright—but your troubles aren’t going anywhere. So why keep repeating the same incantation against the darkness if the darkness just keeps coming back?
In the Prologue to the Gospel of John, the verse that is usually translated “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” actually says, in the literal Greek, “pitched his tent among us.” Fell in nondescriptly with the rest of us nomads, and went native. Jesus said of himself that he had “no place to lay his head”—which seems fitting for someone born in a truck stop. And if we are all passersby in life, aren’t we all just in temporary shelter here?
So are we supposed to be homeless? Or are we rather meant to live as though we were? As though the world were not our gated community, but a cosmic KOA that we were just passing through?
“Be passersby,” Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of Thomas. And by that I don’t think he meant to be aloof—the Good Samaritan was a passerby—but rather to live as though we weren’t from around here. Pitch your tent, but be ready to strike it. And though in his sojourn he was deeply involved—“he went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil”—yet he was also unattached, “in this world but not of it.” And though he was a sojourner here, he didn’t have a return ticket in his pocket, nor did he move through a Potemkin village of a world. He ate with prostitutes, collaborators and other assorted sinners. He laid his hands on lepers. He wasn’t a tourist. In Jesus, God kept it real.
How does one keep it real as a passerby? How does one move through life, not as a tourist, but as a traveler? Not staying in the expat places where everything is comfortable and familiar, but plunging in with both feet? Maybe that is what Jesus came to show us; maybe that’s what His birth narrative means. How would we treat each other if we made no claims on life, yet still entered fully into the thick of it?
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him…When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.[iii]
In Jesus, God plunged into the maya with both feet–tied a towel around his waist and got down here amongst us in this confounding, baffling human life.
Which might be why he loved children. Little kids are travelers. They haven’t yet found their place in the world, yet still manage to throw themselves recklessly into it. (At least mine do.) Their disappointments, though keenly felt and vigorously protested, do not take the form of moral outrage at a legitimate claim on life denied. And their capacity for joy is oceanic.
Our ancestors were travelers—strangers and sojourners on earth. I think of this every year at this time as I sing my favorite Yuletide songs—especially the secular ones, which are more honest, and therefore more revealing. Here’s part of an old English wassailing song:
Now, Master and Mistress, we know you will give
Unto our jolly wassail as long as we live;
And if we do live to another new year,
We will call in again for to see who is here.
Did you catch that? The people who sang that song did not take it for granted that they would be here in a year’s time. Would not have been outraged to learn they would not, nor assume that anything was therefore wrong or amiss. The life they had was a gift, and the life they lost was part of the order of things.
For the order of things is gigantic, and though we are bound to work and struggle and do all we can to relieve the suffering of our fellow creatures, we can be under no illusion that we will ever be done—that Pandora can put it all back into the box. This is the day that the Lord has made; work while you have the light, and rejoice in it, because it is all you have.
The older I get, the more I lose interest in the so-called “Problem of Evil”, and the more I think the yogis may be right: the natural universe is here to give human souls experience. It isn’t a problem to be solved. There’s a wonderful 15th-century English Christmas lyric that briefly alludes to the traditional explanation of why the world is so screwball–Adam and Eve eating that fruit–then moves on to something much more pithy:
And all was for an appil,
An appil that he took,
As clerkes finden
Written in their book…
Blessed be the time
That appil taken was!
Therefore we moun singen
These people had an average life expectancy of 35, more of their children died than survived, they wore their hats at the table to keep the lice out of their food, and yet they praised God for the Fall of Man. Blessed be the time that apple taken was. As though Eden had been some kind of infantile Pleasantville. Because the Fall, Original Sin, maya, the First Noble Truth of the Buddha: they are reminders that we are all in this together—that we are all we’ve got, warts and all. And who wants to live in Pleasantville, anyway— the fictitious 50’s sitcom into which two 90’s teenagers are mysteriously transported in the movie of the same name? In Pleasantville–“a place where life is simple, people are perfect, and everything is black and white”—people do not suffer, but they cannot love. Love is too messy a thing for a black-and-white world, and the suffering, sympathetic God is a stranger wherever maya is unknown.
I heard a speaker once who had lived with Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity in India. He told of being at breakfast after morning Mass and seeing a young sister weeping. When Mother Theresa asked her what was wrong, she replied, “Mother, I have touched Jesus.” Now, Mother Theresa, the speaker said, had no time for soupy piety. “Of course you have,” she rejoined, “You’ve just taken Communion; pull yourself together!”
“You don’t understand,” the Sister replied. “We found a dying woman in the alley. We scraped the maggots off her, brought her here, bathed her and put a clean sari on her, and held her hand until she died.”
Mother Theresa softened. “Now,” she said, “you will never again receive a stranger in the bread and wine.”
God comes into the maya in order not to be a stranger—and in Jesus, God shows us how to be fellow travelers: fully committed, taking life in both hands, yet making no claims on this world for a fulfillment that it cannot provide. “My peace I leave with you,” Jesus said; “Peace such as the world cannot give.” If you want the peace, you must be prepared to surrender and move on.
When Clare was four and Sophie three, we were all playing “baby Jesus” one evening, the girls having conscripted my wife and me into various roles. Sophie, remembering something she had heard in the story, ran to the closet, put on her “fairy” costume, climbed up on the toy chest, extended her wand over us and said, “Don’t be afwaid!”
Which is, of course, the secret of being a traveler and not a tourist: don’t hold yourself aloof from the dangers of life; plunge in with both feet, as God did in Jesus, from the stable to the Cross. If we would no longer see a stranger in the manger, there is nothing for it but to pitch our tent, get down and dirty, and love.
Merry Christmas. Don’t be afraid.