Today I would like to share a guest post with you from my friend Jeff Campbell. Jeff is a member of our online community, which you can learn more about HERE. Jeff is also a dad, Teacher Mentor, Special Educator, writer, mystic and science fiction nerd. He spent the first half his life searching, fell in love with Jesus, fell out of love with the evangelical church, and began to write about contemplative practice, spiritual deconstruction, and meditation. He has written a book called Contemplating Advent, which you can find HERE.
There’s no particular reason I hadn’t set up a Christmas tree these last few years. But it felt like time, this year, to do it again. I was surprised by how beautiful I found the lights. Even the garish ornaments somehow seemed transformed into something a little more sublime. I found myself turning off the lights and sitting in the semi-dark. I beheld the thing, I sat with it, and I was struck by the powerful, lovely paradoxes and dynamics that this thing embodied.
Here was an appropriated pagan tradition that had come to symbolize a holiday which can be seen simultaneously as the ultimate expression of Christianity and the worst kind of rotting late stage capitalism. Here was a decoration that for me was a recreation of a living thing made of the most synthetic of all the synthetics. (However, if I’d gone the “real” tree route I would have been face to face with an even juicier paradox: a symbol of life that had been stolen from its natural environment which was slowly dying in my living room.)
A tree can be seen as the ultimate mini-symbol to stand for the entirety of the natural world. Like most people, I had taken this symbol of nature and laden those imitation branches with a string of electrical lights; electrical lights which could reasonably be seen to be the ultimate mini-symbol for the entirety of the man-made scientific “progress.”
When the last ornament was hung, my daughter turned off the other electric lights in the room to get the full effect, and in that quality time we spent with the fake tree, one of the things I was so very thankful for was the fact that I was safe and warm. But the thing that enhanced this feeling? It was that it was so cold and bitter outside. If this tree had gone up during some other time of year, when it was warm and comfortable outside, I would have missed out on something.
There was a time I would have been interested in navigating between all these extremes. I would have wanted to decide, for example, is Christmas a pagan, Christian, or capitalist holiday? I would have wanted to know if fake trees are good or bad. I would have wanted to declare ornaments as grossly overdone—or would have stood behind the claim that they were simply beautiful. That was a good and important place to be. I’m glad for my time there.
Later, I would have thought about how the darkness defined the light. I would have recognized that we need the extremes to get a full appreciation of wherever we land in the middle. That’s not untrue. But it’s not where I find myself now.
Now? I find myself in love with the absurd, hilarious, mind-blowing expansive reality that this little tiny Christmas tree is all of it. And really, the tree is just a doorway, just an invitation into an Advent reality that it is even more expansive. Will you join me on a brief exploration of the nondual, both/and realities of the Advent Season? These days, for me, this is the real meaning of Christmas:
The Eternal entered into time. This ultimate spiritual substance-force, which was theoretically everywhere, located itself in a little corner of the world thousands of years ago. The result of this joining of transcendence and immanence—the results of this joining of forever and now– was entirely human and fully God. Jesus Christ was completely a historical personage, entirely separate from Yahweh and mysteriously also in some way identical with his creator.
Jesus Christ was not only God and man, he was also history and myth, utterly particular and unspeakably universal. (A side note—it turns out that Jesus and Yahweh are not only one, not only two, but they are also linked to a third ‘someone-something.’ They are one, two, and three!)
The coming of this Jesus was detailed in the Hebrew Scriptures. At the same time, he was nothing like they expected. He said that he came in order to fulfill the words of the scriptures and, while honoring them, subverted them. He was free to choose anything and yet time and time again he submitted himself to his father/self’s will. His words and actions were eminently practical, profoundly spiritual, and informed by the political realities of his day.
Christmas happens at the end of the calendar year. Yet it is a time of beginnings; a celebration of birth. For many of us, it is celebrated in the winter, the season traditionally associated with death. It is a celebration of lights in the season where we spend so much of the day in darkness. We reenact the giving of a great and unexpected gift by giving gifts to each other. A time for carefully rehearsed and handed down stories.
Then comes Easter, nearer the beginning of the yearly calendar. A celebration of death; for many of us celebrated in the Spring, the season traditionally associated with new life. A celebration of darkness in the season where we spend so much of the day beneath the sun. The gift that was given to us in December is taken away from us, and yet there is some sort of liberation for us in the middle of all this: we reenact the death and find ourselves wondering about the possibility and meaning of resurrection.
The journey from Christmas to Easter, between those extremes, is a journey we all take as individuals. We too will come into the world, we too will someday leave it. It is a walk from light into darkness. But there is something after that death. There is resurrection, returning us in this circle back into the new life of a baby in a manger. Just as the liturgical calendar and the stories it tells journey through Christmas to Easter and then back to the next Christmas, so too, do we as human beings, pass from life into death and then resurrection and back into new life.
When I dwell in this glorious nonsense, when I take seriously these glorious nondualities that speak to my very depths, I understand Paul. He was a lovingly-murderous Jewish-Christian disciple who never met Jesus in life. This rigidly logical writer would find himself suddenly, ecstatically spouting the most compelling poetry, absurdities that lift us up nonetheless.
I know that there will be people who will argue about the meaning of Jesus, the meaning of Christmas. They will seek to choose between the options. If this dualistic choosing brings them peace and enhances the love they bring into the world more power to it.
But there is joy in this dance within the paradox. I hope that you can treasure this gift along with me.
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