The Symbols of Christmas — Center for Action and Contemplation

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The Symbols of Christmas


The Symbols of Christmas
Thursday, December 24, 2020
Christmas Eve

People often use the word “magical” to describe their Christmas memories from childhood. I hope that was your experience. I have to confess that I am fortunate enough to have some rather “mystical” Christmas memories, too. Two of my earliest God-experiences took place around Christmas time, the first when I was about five years old. It was evening and all of my family was in the kitchen with the lights on. It was bright in there, but I was in the living room where it was dark with just the Christmas tree lit. I had the sense that the world was good, I was good, and I was part of the good world; and I just wanted to stay there. I remember feeling very special, very chosen, very beloved, and it was my secret. The family in the kitchen didn’t know what I was knowing. I have to laugh now to see how my ego was involved, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a true and holy experience. God meets us where we are, even as a five-year-old.

The second experience happened when I was in first or second grade. I was in church and had gone up to look at the Nativity scene on Epiphany when the three kings and their camels finally arrived to see Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I remember feeling how lucky I was to live in this world where it all makes sense and it’s all good. It is all focused on the birth of this little baby.

Looking back, it’s no wonder that the incarnation became the heart of my understanding of the Gospel. In both those moments, at the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib, it was like I’d been taken over to another world, the world as it’s meant to be, where the foundation is love and God is in everything. It was like I saw the “real world” inside of which everybody is truly living, but they simply don’t know it!

Howard Thurman (1900–1981), the Black theologian and mystic, also saw great power in the symbol of Christmas. For Thurman, the “Mood of Christmas” was not merely in the Christ Child, but in what Christmas is offering us across the entire sweep of creation and time. He writes:

The symbol of Christmas—what is it? It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil. [1]

I pray that this Christmas, we are each gifted with some magical or mystical experience, reminding us that we are beloved, part of a good world, stirring with the “newness of life.”

[1] Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations (Friends United Press: 1973, 1985), 3.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Essential Teachings on Love, ed. Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Orbis Books: 2018), 17‒18.

Image credit: The Virgin and Child with Archangels, Scenes from the Life of Christ, and Saints (detail), early 17th century (Early Gondarine), Tigray Kifle Håger, Ethiopia, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
What I have seen is the totality recapitulated as one,
received not in essence but by participation.
Just as if you lit a flame from a flame,
it is the whole flame you receive.
—Symeon the New Theologian
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