Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas East of Eden

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.  Genesis 3: 22-24

I recently had a bird’s eye view of a congregation watching a choir perform their Christmas cantata.  This was the Sunday before Christmas.  I did not see what I expected to see.  Rather than faces filled with joy, hope, and peace, I saw entire bodies in a defensive posture, with calloused expressions.  The joy of Christmas had not yet reached into the hearts of the parish.  And that’s when this scripture came calling to me.  For many of us, Genesis 3 is the setting for Christmas. 
If you have young children, or even the faith of a child, and are excited about this Christmas, this message may not really be for you.  But for the rest of us, I have a feeling that maybe you know what I am talking about.  At this time of year, our sense of being east of Eden is stronger than at any other time of the year. 
I have heard countless explanations for the Genesis story, from a factual account of creation and the first human beings, to a symbolic narrative chronicling the dawn of agriculture and civilization.  But the one that has always had the most meaning to me is this being a personal narrative of growing up.  This is the story of our lives.  If we are so lucky to have loving parents, we are created, nurtured and go about our first years in a state bliss, in the garden, untainted by the harsh realities known only to the adult world.  And Christmas is the pinnacle of the pure joy of childhood.  No birthday, summer vacation to Disney World, or Easter Bunny surprises could hold a candle anywhere close to the anticipation and fulfillment of joy that the Christmas season brings.  Presents, pajamas with footies, time with every family member we know and love – it just doesn’t get any better.

Yet, inevitably, and without us even realizing, life nudges us away from the womb of childhood and into awareness of the cruelty of living.  Somewhere along the way, we catch the virus of maturity, and the symptoms of grief, loss, mundane existence, stress and adult responsibilities set in.  Having succumbed to the inevitable temptation of knowledge of these things, we realize that we are naked, or if not naked, that what we are wearing isn’t nearly good enough.  The ground beneath us shifts ever so subtly to the east, and without knowing it, we have slid away from our center, out of the garden, and into the doldrums. 

And one day we wake up in the Christmas season and go looking for the joy that we left behind.  “Where is it?  Why didn’t the magic of Christmas come this year?  I did everything the same, but still I can’t find it.”  And as we continue the process of growing up, life takes this opportunity to really show us the true contrast from where we were to where we are now.  The abundance and leisure of childhood are replaced with financial struggle and an overbooked schedule.  Time with the ones we love is replaced with the pain of fractured relationships and the immeasurable sense of loss from the death of a loved one.  Cancer, traffic accidents, divorce, infidelity, bankruptcy, loss of faith, grief, apathy and indifference – these are the realities of going through life.  And like it did when we lived in the wondrous cocoon of childhood, Christmas intensifies the experience of our existence.  We begin to see the tragic irony of putting the holiday in the dead of winter rather than a more temperate time of year (as the shepherds’ presence would suggest).

So there it is.  We are living our grown up lives out of the garden, and we are receiving Christmas out in the cold, east of Eden.  And it can be a very sad place.  As this chapter of Genesis closes, only three chapters into the good book, we already know that this story is about us.  And many of us spend many Christmases at this point in the story.  In fact, we can find in these short verses so much of the significant parts of our lives that no matter if we keep reading, we cannot help but to think back to this part of the story.  But we must keep reading because that is not the end of the story. 

But this does draw to a close the garden part of the story.  Cherubim and a flaming sword block the way back, and the footprints of life trampled all over our backs have fuzzied our memories of where the garden even is.  To put it back in the framing of Genesis - we are infected; we have eaten from the tree of knowledge, we have known true heartbreak, and there is no cure on earth for what now runs through our veins.  That is the bad news.  We are fractured from the land of fond memories and the joy of being a child of God in the garden. 

But hear this: the Christmas story does not take place in the garden.  And it isn’t designed to show us the way back to innocence.  If that is what you are looking for (it certainly is what is being peddled on every street corner), you will be disappointed, or left with a brief but fleeting emotional boost that will not sustain you. 

The Christmas story engages us right where we are, in our brokenness.  What better clue do we need that this story is for us, broken down and in despair east of Eden, than the enunciation that God has come to us from an unwed mother in a stable?  In the deadness of the winter season, and in the shattering pain of our lives, we are told that there is more, always more.  A star, a newborn child, the comfort of an old friendship, a new friendship, a grandchild, an opportunity to minister to someone else’s hurt, the promise of a season of Spring, possibility, redemption, forgiveness, a heart of gratitude for the joy we have had and the hope of joy to come, Emmanuel – “God with us.”  We are east of Eden, but the Christmas story tells us that God is here with us, and there is plenty of rejoicing left to do.

This part of our story, the Christmas story east of Eden, is a time to reflect with immense gratitude for our time in the garden of life’s joy, to wrap our gratitude around our grief and allow God to mourn with us for what is lost, and to find hope and salvation for where we are now.  It is my prayer for you that you will follow the story to this point, find the faith to believe it, and continue writing it for a long, long time to your own wonderful conclusion. 

Hallelujah for the miracle of life and the wonder of it all!  Merry Christmas, 

(written Christmas 2009)

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