By Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS
December 20, 2005
The Christmas cards that I received this year fit into several categories: Madison Avenue trimmings, nature scenes, children's photographs, and religious proclamations. In many ways, this diversity of cards provides a fascinating view into the complexity of our modern culture. It certainly tells us more about the senders than the holiday. Senders today are in various stages of struggle with the forces of secularity, which is the desire to define everything purely in terms of this world. Traditionally, secularity is opposed to religions. Religions seek to define reality in terms of both this world and that which transcends this world.
Secularists have a lot of trouble with Christmas. It is a tough religious feast to secularize. It announces clearly that the full meaning of our humanity requires that we point beyond the confines of our given natures. It proclaims that the world has its origin, purpose, and destiny only in that which transcends this world. It makes the powerful claim that humanity is open to divinity, that the world is capable of embracing transcendence, and that in one unique event, Jesus Christ, man and God became one. To make the feast a secular event reduces transcendence to immanence and confuses the significance of both the secular and the transcendent.
In some sense, it might be appropriate to associate Christmas with Madison Avenue. The human adventure of business and commerce is meant to be a process of providing for our material well-being. Prosperity and vibrancy should mark the economies of the world. Our planet overflows with material richness. Human intelligence and ingenuity are meant to transform this abundance into well-being for the people of the world. So Christmas cards with Santa Claus, plump snow persons, reindeer, red ribbons and brightly colored balls make some sense. After all, the birth of Jesus is a completely free gift from the Godhead to humanity. Why not perpetuate the wonderful event of gift-giving in our world? Christmas reminds us, however, that a gift is not simply what it appears to be. Jesus appears to be only human, but He is more. Gifts must also be more than the material thing in the wrapped paper. Gifts require transcendent dimensions. They must come from a heart and signify something important. The gift itself must be located within a context of meaning and significance that transcends the actual gift.
Cards of nature scenes remind us of the beauty of our world. When captured in a certain light and angle, nature resonates with a character that brings a sense of wonder to the human heart. There is something solid and substantial about a snow covered bridge arching above a crystal stream. Most of the cards present pictures of winter. Not everyone, however, sees great beauty in this season. Some people flee it. Christmas reminds us that the natural world is ambiguously supportive of the human adventure. The same snow that brings beauty can also cause great harm. Bridges tend to be very slippery. Cars crash in winter storms. Nature is far from definitively friendly to humanity. Nature must be placed within the context of a loving God for a card about snow to be a friendly gesture. Even then, troubling ambiguities remain. In a purely secular world, pictures about nature do not always bring joy.
Children's photographs are very common these days. In many ways, they are much closer to announcing transcendence than either snow people or moonlit bridges. A picture of children leads to thoughts about parents, families, happy encounters, promise, and delight. It is difficult not to pause with a sense of wonder as you look at the bright eyes of these little faces. The harsh realities of the secular world, however, can quickly dim these feelings of joy. Promises are not always fulfilled. Delight often ends in pain. Children grow older. Happiness is not always the concluding chapter of life's story. If we were to view the life of a child in simply secular terms, it would be hard to avoid the Greek myth of Sisyphus. The gods condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly roll a huge rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. If this is the future for these shining faces, then it seems strange to celebrate a beginning that has such a meaningless ending.
Religious cards clearly point beyond this natural world. They do so by using natural beings is ways that don't make complete sense to our natural consciousness: a baby born in a manger, wise kings kneeling before a child, strange stars moving through the sky, angels singing. These cards require reflection upon biblical stories. The stories raise questions that have puzzled people for centuries. These stories challenge our understandings of the world and require the mind to posit realities that transcend the world. This is both painful and exhilarating for humans. We want so much to be able to comprehend and control reality. We want to be in charge. But Christmas tells us that we have a humbler and gentler role. We are invited to bow our heads and learn the meaning of worship. We are on a journey from God to God. Our life is a gift from God, to be returned to God in love. Our role is simple: to love one another on the journey.
Christianity places the world between two great poles: God and human soul. We are to live in this world but from the depths of our souls and in the presence of a loving God. The tensions created by these three realities produce the vital energies and dynamisms of our earthly adventure. Secularity presents only one-dimension. It eliminates both depth and transcendence from the human experience. This is too narrow for humanity. It suffocates all that is glorious about us as people. It is good to be reminded that we are made for glory. Merry Christmas!
Rev. Bernard F. O'Connor, OSFS, is the third President of DeSales University and has served since July 1999. He joined the faculty of DeSales University, then known as Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, in 1974.
Press Release: Christmas Cards By Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS | Posted on: 12/20/2005
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