The following article was first published in Roqueta, Menorca’s English language magazine – Winter 2019 issue.
There are times when life seems rather like a house of cards. One surprising medical result, or one shadow on an X-ray, or one misstep, or one banker’s error, or one poor decision, can bring down our sense of security and our carefully laid plans. It is all too easy to feel lost when this happens.
Of course, there’s an old saying that if you want to make God laugh, you should tell him/her your plans. The point being that our planning perspective can be rather short-sighted and narrowly focused compared to divine foresight and wisdom.
This season of darker days and longer nights is an opportunity to reflect upon such things, and to take the opportunity for some quiet contemplation about our lives, our hopes and plans, our fears, our vulnerability – and all that contributes to our humanity, including those times when we feel like lost souls. The church observes the season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, as such a time of reflection, of anticipation and waiting – and of getting ready, but not necessarily in a material sense.
And when we finally arrive at Christmas, that is not the end of it. It is worth immersing ourselves in the season of Christmas, understanding that it is more than just a day, and sharing with those around us in Spanish culture the extended celebration of the meaning of Christmas and anticipation of those who arrive at the manger after others – in other words the Magi (and anyone else who was late in preparing!).
To talk about the “true meaning of Christmas” can be contentious, because the meaning can be different for each one of us, and will probably vary as we progress through life.
Nevertheless, one of the important messages of Christmas is that human life is worth something – in fact worth a lot. As a Christmas carol (by John L. Bell & Graham Maule) says, “God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.” Christmas connects the earthiness of human life with the sacred divinity of its creator.
Just because we don’t show our divine side all the time, or very often, it does not mean that we do not all have that within us. The origins of celebrating the birth of Christ are not simply rooted in secular festivity, but in recognising that there is a divine investment in human beings. We sing the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” to remind ourselves that Emmanuel means “God with us.”
Christmas also tells us that human vulnerability can be sacred. The most vulnerable form of human existence, a helpless baby, becomes the setting for divine presence in the world. The ‘Pessebres,’ the nativity scenes that we find all over Menorca during the Christmas season, take the story of Christmas and place it in the everyday environment around us. And this is what is important about Christmas. It takes divinity, it takes spirituality, it takes religion, and places all of that in the setting of ordinary human existence. All of our fragile plans, all of our House-of-Cards lives, are given greater meaning and significance, because they are blessed by being set in a grander, divine, plan. That means that all the other human lives are similarly blessed.
So one of the deep meanings of Christmas is that we should not only feel well fed and cared for in our own inner circle of family and friends, but that we accept responsibility for the human lives around us, too.
In accepting the fragility of our own human plans and our own vulnerability, those times when we feel lost, we open ourselves to be connected to those whose houses of cards have already been blown over, or fallen down, and we might find a greater sense of empathy and compassion for them – for all those who are in one way or another lost souls.
The Canadian singer-songwriter, Loreena McKennitt, wrote this little anecdote on the notes to her 2018 album, which happens to be called ‘Lost Souls.’
I think of a vagabond, who when wandering the street late at night, was stopped by a policeman and asked why he was out so late, to which he replied, “If I knew the answer to that question I would have been home hours ago.” Perhaps we are not lost, just taking a long time returning home.Loreena McKennitt, Lost Souls
The Magi were late to arrive after the birth of Christ, and warned in a dream to return home by a different route. Plans can be made, but life may rearrange our plans unexpectedly. Life is fragile. Yet the season of Christmas tells us that no matter how meandering our spiritual journeys may be, we are more than just lost souls – and there is always the promise of a spiritual home to which we can return. And the preceding season of Advent encourages us to prepare ourselves to understand better, in spiritual terms, what this means to us and about us and those around us.
If we are going to build our houses of cards, perhaps we should at least make them houses of Christmas cards, to celebrate the divine investment in human uncertainty!