At this time of year we hear frequent invocations of “the spirit of the season.” For example, between bursts of the "Hallelujah" chorus" and Beethoven’s Ninth ads for the Seattle Symphony command, “Celebrate the Spirit of the Season with Maestro Gerard Swartz,” as if to say, “If baby Jesus isn’t working for you anymore, try the Maestro!”
What is the “spirit of the season?” What do we mean by such phrases? I always wonder. I also wonder if I suffer from a rare form of Seasonal Affective Disorder that causes me to wonder about such things. Or it could be because I’m an “I” on the Myers-Briggs (a group to watch out for!).
Is the spirit of the season the shimmering sentimentality of little drummer boys endlessly “rum-pum-pumming?” Is it the oft-lamented stress and pressure of the holidays? Is the spirit of the season a heartfelt feeling of compassion for the less fortunate? Or is what they are really saying, “spirits of the season,” and it’s what happens after the fourth drink at a Christmas party?
Well, it has something to do with generosity, fellow-feeling for others, and well, joy. I imagine even the most Scrooge-like of us hopes, in our heart of hearts, to experience the spirit of the season. We do all want to be old Ebenezer throwing open the shutters of our heart even as Scrooge throws open the shutters of his lodgings to a bright Christmas Day.
And yet, we are ambivalent. Ambivalent and cautious. We have gotten our hopes up before and been disappointed. Instead of the magic of the holidays what arrives at our door are the in-laws. Hoping for the gift that will not only say “I love you,” but “I know you (and still love you),” we get socks and a tie that look remarkably like the ones we got last year. Best, then, to keep expectations to a minimum.
The problem with “the spirit of the season” is that we get the idea that it’s something that it’s up to us to create or manufacture. Sort of like high school Spirit Week. If we play enough music and loud enough will we get the spirit, or maybe only a headache?
But if the spirit of the season means anything, it isn’t something we manufacture or produce or “get into” by our own fevered efforts. It is something that comes to us — unexpected, unbidden. Not so much gotten, I think, as given. Not so much something we find, as that which finds us.
There is a religious word for this. Grace. It means utter, complete gift. Something you did not plan or even conceive. Something you have not earned or deserve.
It is what we all want and what we all do not want. We want grace for its mystery and wonder, its unmistakable feeling that there is something other, something more to life than that which we see or know, some hidden beneficence at work in the world. And we don’t want it because it’s an intruder, one that asks something of us, rearranges our lives and threatens our illusion of control.
As such, the spirit of the season often seems as likely to happen when things break down, as they often do this time of year, than when we’ve managed Martha Stewart-like perfection. Finding ourselves face-to-face with what we did not choose or even imagine, a breakdown sometimes leads to a breakthrough of sorts. Efforts to “get” the spirit of the season are condemned from the get-go, for they are attempts to domesticate, to reduce to size, that which resists all such efforts.
Still, after so many tellings and re-tellings, a nativity, a newborn child, gets it right. A baby says “grace.” However expected, a child is still somehow unexpected, or beyond all our expectations. Not only that, a baby inevitably upsets our plans and re-arranges our lives.
This year, two of our three children got married. One son wed in July, the other in October. In their way, both of these experiences were grace too. Here’s a new person, a wife, a daughter-in-law. Where did she come from? So beautiful and unknown, now we are family. Grace.
Nor is this to say that such grace is always welcome or easy. My wife and I wondered how this would change our lives? Would we lose a son? Gain a daughter? Or something altogether different? And of course marriage never means just one person arriving. You get a family in the bargain (as indeed our in-laws got us). Grief and joy mingled in ways I couldn’t predict or control. But in the end, something new has come. Something we did not control or deserve. Grace.
May grace come to you in this season, as it always does, in ways both utterly surprising and yet oddly familiar. Like a newborn child. And if grace doesn’t arrive right on schedule (there was a time when babies didn’t), let it be enough to entertain the possibility, the faith, that grace is real, that surprises still happen, that there are new beginnings, and that hearts are healed.
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