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Great blessings from humble beginnings

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POSTED December 21, 2008 12:02 a.m.
Christmas is all about little things becoming great.  A diminutive elf of unknown origins comes in the stillness of night, bringing joy to children throughout the world.  A rejected reindeer becomes his brothers’ guide.  Kids steal the spotlight, while dutiful parents burn the midnight oil to get the stockings hung and presents all in place.  And, for the fortunate, snow falls.  Christmas grows white as tiny crystalline snowflakes cling together, descending silently like feathers from heaven’s angels, blowing in by the billions from the far corners of winter and blanketing the barren earth.
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by…”  The graceful magic of Christmas goes so far beyond our human habit of reducing everything to stuff, and to stuffing, and to being so busy with holiday activities.    The meaning of this most beautiful of sacred seasons lies in its beginnings: a quiet messenger from the throne of Almighty God leaves Mary pregnant with a microscopic seed of life Who is, in fulfillment of eons of eager longing, Emmanuel.
If we could get straight in our complicated minds the fact that God wants a simple Christmas celebration, we’d all be a lot better off.  Look where the craving for bigger and better has gotten our economy.    Sometimes it all has to come crashing down to help us, as a nation, start once again.  I don’t mean to belittle those who have lost everything.  May God have mercy on them, as they journey into 2009’s financial icecap with minimal resources.
But they wouldn’t be empty-handed now, if someone hadn’t been grasping at more than they needed or deserved.    Far from being about accumulating, Christmas calls us to let go.  For Jesus to enter freely, we have to clear out the clutter blocking His passage and open our hands to receive New Life.
This was illustrated to me recently in a very ordinary way.  Three weeks ago, on a particularly difficult day, I made it to the Post Office just on time to send off an important package.  At one point, the clerk excused herself to lock the entryway.  I, for my part, turned to toss something in the trash. There, from the floor, a little stamp looked up at me.  It boldly bore the word, “Kwanzaa”.  Meanwhile, the clerk finished preparing my mailing.  
 
The season of grace is for everyone
It really had been a tough day.  “No one’s here,” I thought. “I’ll just keep that stamp, to remind myself that this season of grace is for everyone.”
Kwanzaa is, according to Dr. Maulana Karenga, its creator , “an ancient and living cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice in its reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person in community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the integrity of the environment and our kinship with it, and the rich resource and meaning of a people’s culture.” According to Wikipedia, Karenga’s goal in founding Kwanzaa was to “...give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”
Given all the attempts to sideline Christmas, and the centrality of Christ, in the United States and Europe, I was far from enthusiastic, the first time I’d heard about Kwanzaa.  But somehow, this pretty little stamp caught my fancy.  Leaning over quietly, as the clerk closed the register, I picked it up.
Yet something froze me in my tracks.  “Give the stamp back to the clerk,” I seemed to hear a voice inside me say.  Protesting, “Is this necessary?”, I yielded anyway, and set the tiny thing before her.  She broke out in a big smile.  “What a relief,” the woman exclaimed.  “What relief?” I wondered.
“You couldn’t have known,” the clerk testified, “but just a few minutes before you came in, a woman bought a bunch of stamps. Then she claimed that I hadn’t given her that last stamp, but I was certain that I had.”  The employee had finally bought the customer another Kwanzaa stamp with her own money, but the women parted company with a residue of doubts.
“At least I know that neither of us was wrong – I had given the stamp, and she didn’t have it in her possession. I sure hope she comes back again…”
Two weeks later, a long, hand-written letter arrived.  In it, an obviously young hand had etched out a plea for help.  “…I am writing this letter to help my mom.  This will be our first Christmas together in two years.  We had got taken away and she worked really heard to get us back.  She needs help this Christmas because she don’t have a lot of money.  And being the oldest boy in the house I want to do my part.  I have two sisters and one brother.    This is our prayer wish list:”… And then he presented their needs.
Well, maybe “wishes” would be more accurate.  Each of the four names carried with it a dozen requests.  Any kid, no matter how wealthy, would be fortunate to receive all those wonderful things.  But what touched me most was the boy’s boldness in asking and his confidence in getting a reply – not to mention, of course, the care which he had shown for his family.
“Please bring something for my mom,” he concluded.  “She likes cooking tools, the color blue, and Pepsi.” And then this last touching note: “PPS Pray for my big sister to want to come home.”  I had to go find this family.
Some days later, I dropped by the address his envelope carried.  This was a very small house, set back behind a bare cyclone fence, with the names of Obama and Biden prominent in the windows.  In front, a plastic container full of shoes, featured the four names of those children listed in the letter.
The boy’s name sounded definitely African.  His older sister’s, Egyptian.  The eleven-year old bore what seemed a name from India.  And the three-year old, American black.  So in paying that visit, I looked forward to discovering the truth of their origins.    But to my disappointment, no one was home.   Sticking a brief note in the door, I returned to Saint Mary’s.
Yet no sooner had I entered my office, the phone rang.  It was that family.
That night, meetings finally done, I was back at their house.  Struck by the miniature dimensions of a home for five, I began asking questions.  The mother, still young, had been raised Muslim.  In her adult years, she began attending a Protestant church.  But now she felt lost.  So many things had gone wrong over the years, and now with her husband gone and her oldest in foster care, she was struggling just to make ends meet.  Her fourteen and eleven year olds impressed me with their respect, maturity, and dignity.
The youngest, just three, wore us out with his endless energy and antics.  It was obvious, from his disruptive behavior, that he missed having a father.
 
Suffering from lack of presence
The family was suffering less from the lack of presents as from the lack of presence.  The absence of their father and sister was written in bold letters.
Turning toward their tiny Christmas tree, I was moved by the ornaments.  Unable to afford the normal kind, mom had taught the kids to tear out big snowflakes from folded paper.  It may not have been pretty, but beautiful this artificial evergreen had become.  All covered with snow, it was proud.
I left the family promising to keep them in prayer, and to rally generous parishioners behind an effort to provide at least a few of the gifts.  But they left me with a message of new hope and gratitude in this season of excess.
We didn’t talk about Kwanzaa, but I’m sure the mother knew all about it.  Maybe we who celebrate Christmas could learn from its seven principals.  Here are the first, the third, the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh: “ Umoja (Unity) To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.  Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together. Nia (Purpose) To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. Kuumba (Creativity) To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. Imani (Faith) To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”
Kwanzaa extends from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. Beginning the day after Christmas, this holiday extends year-end celebrations while avoiding the pitfall of Christmas-based commercialism.  For Christians observing the “pan-African” tradition (that is, since its founding in 1966), the “Imani” (faith) principal needs to be infused with our belief that Jesus Christ is the focal point of all history, the one true God who was born for us in Bethlehem.  For African-American Jews, the missing element in Kwanzaa is, again, religious: no program for social uplift or pan-African solidarity can serve the Jewish community if it ignores God, the Torah, and the long-awaited Messiah.  Otherwise, it yields too easily to the collectivist agenda.
Both Christmas and Kwanzaa were preceded, and borrow important elements from, Chanukah (or Hanukkah), observed this year beginning tonight at sunset (Dex. 21) and extending to the 29th . It celebrates two miracles: a) The 2 nd century BCE victory of a vastly outnumbered and out-armed army of Jews, known as the “Maccabees,” over the Greek army occupying Palestine.  The rebellion was in response to the Greek attempt to force a pagan Hellenistic lifestyle on the Jewish inhabitants of Israel.
he daily lighting of a seven-branched Menorah (candelabra) was an important component of the daily service in the Holy Temple. This ritual commemorates the miracle, in which the temple oil, nearly depleted, burned for eight days and nights.  Hannukah is thus “the festival of lights”.
Whatever you celebrate, I hope that you put God, and His chosen Messiah, at the very center of everything.  That is what I pray my new friends do.
I’m not going to forget that family in their tiny home.  I’m not going to forget that tiny little stamp, either.  If Christmas means anything in a year of catastrophic financial losses, it must above all teach us that, having one another and clinging to the gift of our faith, we have everything we need.
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