Christmas is a Season when the self encounters itself. There is a solitary quality about Christmas, as well as one of great merriment spent in joy with family and friends all across our great land.
Christmas elevates, in some manner, the spirit. It consumes us as a calendar event, but at the same time, it is larger than the calendar. It invades us, connects us, and enables us to yield to a larger world than ourselves.
We may think we own the world of Christmas, but it also owns us. The rest of the year plays out differently. This year, in a strange way, there seem to be heightened issues of control. For example, more and more we see the dominance of drones, robots, and servers.
They are all data vultures. They are organized as a tool of consumption and control. They are information sweepers and conveyors. They create vast outputs for society. Supposedly, they enable us to own and govern ourselves better.
At the same time, things seem perilously out of control across the country and world. The volatility of world currencies, the mindless thrusts of terror, and the fragility of the climate cloud are seen as “black holes.” They reach beyond the logic of the human mind and thrive in a tenure of vast unpredictability.
We need to apply our most salient intelligence to these and other questions of course. However, the world of drones (and other technologies) and the dicta of omniscient policy may conflict more than they collaborate. How does such a world stay connected, and what is the lesson of Christmas for us?
Fresh thinking in China offers one clue. He Huaihong, a professor at Peking University, in a new book of writings published by Brookings, contends that “our material…power is at an extraordinary peak, but the spiritual and cultural bonds that keep us connected to one another have never been weaker.” He calls for a renewal of “spiritual roots.” Spiritual beliefs “pervade every aspect of our lives…they exist on their own plane,” he declares. He adds, “they cannot – and should not – be forced, and modern society increasingly accepts that fact.” He holds how such beliefs are “strong and sustained,” however, and how no nation without them can generate the “spiritual power to draw in other nations.” China is seeing the need for some ancient wisdom in this modern hour.
And this month, the celebration of Frank Sinatra’s life offers a glimpse how one transcends the ordinary. Sinatra, the great mid-20th century singer, would have been 100 on December 12. He was a self-educated man, and lifelong reader. There is a startling new biography about his mastery of music also. The power of song did not fall easily from his lips, as one might assume. He practiced hard and stuck to a rigorous and very disciplined routine all his life.
“I take a sheet with just the lyrics. No music,” he once told the casino mogul Steve Wynn. “I’m looking at a poem. I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing, the words so I can experiment and get the right inflections. When I get with the orchestra, I sing the words without a microphone first, so I can adjust the way I’ve been practicing to the arrangement. I’m looking to fit the emotion behind the song that I’ve come up with to the music. Then it all comes together.”
Once Sinatra sang the number, on record or on stage, he inhabited the lyric. Sinatra became himself with the song. By thinking the thoughts, and feeling the feelings, he let the listeners think and feel them too. Authenticity, work, and connectedness gave the world something unique.
The common lesson is not China or Sinatra in a Christmas message, but the need for us to be grounded individually well, and, as a people. Our common future depends on it. There is a Scripture in Hebrews that says it well: “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never…continually make the corners thereunto perfect.” What does this mean for us?
It means there is something other than our mind and prejudices, our ways, our institutions, our cultures – something more, something beyond, ourselves which perfects our universe. It means our devices of thought, however admirable, will never be enough in themselves to meet the needs of an uncertain planet. It means there is an arrow of love and the flame of truth that transcend the law being only “a shadow of good things to come.”
The Christmas promise is about God’s love appearing to humanity and the regeneration of the spirit and reformation of character that bring increased joy and peace to many. It is about a season that touches our deeper nature and enlarges the shadow of good things to come for all.