Another Week Ends

1. Every year, the Vatican erects a different nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. They’re […]

Todd Brewer / 12.18.20

1. Every year, the Vatican erects a different nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. They’re kind of a big deal. Past displays have been politically themed, while others were more traditionally beautiful. But the chosen scene this year is causing quite the stir. Including a fire extinguisher, ring-wraith figurine, and an astronaut helmet, the New York Post called it a “Darth Vader” nativity, and they probably have a point. The New York Times found reactions to the crèche ranging from mockery to puzzled admiration:

“Perhaps it would have been better to give them a symbol to rally round rather than an object of mockery. The misshapen figures in the Nativity scene,” [art historian Elizabeth Lev] continued, “lack all the grace, proportion, vulnerability, and luminosity that one looks for in the manger scene.”

In my opinion, the best take on the nativity scene came from a local tour guide, who

said it wasn’t as bad as she had expected, given all the negative coverage. Plus, in the year of the epidemic, she appreciated that there was something otherworldly, but also empathetic, about a crèche that had endured natural disasters and scorn. “It’s a Nativity scene that has had problems, like we’ve all had a lousy year,” she said. “If it made it, we can.”

For his part, Pope Francis had this to say:

The feast of the Nativity reminds us that Jesus is our peace, our joy, our strength, our comfort. […] But, to receive these gifts of grace, it is necessary to feel small, poor, and humble like the figures in the Nativity.

Still no word yet on whether St. Peter himself has rolled over in his grave over this:

2. With all due apologies to the song, Christmas is not usually “the most wonderful time of the year” for everyone. Whether it be the expectation (read: law) of holiday cheer, memories of past holiday misfortunes, or the anxieties arising from the celebrations themselves, this time of year is far from the glittered, joyful festivities we see on TV. As Arthur Brooks outlines in his latest at the Atlantic,

Amid the cheer of this time of year, there are always rumblings of holiday discontent: the crass materialism; the Christmas decorations in stores going up right after Halloween; the abomination known as “pumpkin spice.” […] A 2015 Healthline survey revealed that more than 18 percent of people say they are very stressed during the holidays, and another nearly 44 percent say they are somewhat stressed. Similarly, a 2006 survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a polling firm, found that during the holidays, 61 percent of respondents reported feeling stress, 36 percent felt sad, and 26 percent felt lonely. For many, “holiday cheer” is conjured from a bottle: The American Addiction Center surveyed 1,000 Americans about their drinking consumption during the holidays and found that roughly 27 percent of men and 17 percent of women drank enough “to have difficulty recalling their celebration.”

Lord knows what the stats might look like this year. To combat the holiday malaise, Brooks has some wonderful, Charlie Brown Christmas-style advice — with the statistics to back it up. Ditch the “holiday season” and celebrate Christmas with family and friends (as much as possible):

Focus on the true meaning of the holidays, not the commercial version of them. Writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2002, two scholars randomly surveyed 117 Americans ranging in age from 18 to 80 about their emotional experience during the holiday season. The study found clear evidence that what brought happiness during that time was family and religion. In contrast, the secular, materialistic aspects of the holidays — spending money and receiving gifts — contributed little to joy, or “were associated with less happiness and more stress and unpleasant affect.” […] Consumerism and spectacle can crowd out the holidays’ original significance.

Star Trek Christmas Lights

3. This article/infographic on the findings of a Notre Dame astrophysicist, Grant Mathews, is genuinely astonishing to me. While Bible scholars routinely surmise that the star at Jesus’ birth is probably fictional, another explanation is entirely possible, if not likely — the (extremely rare) alignment of the sun, moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. Occurring on April 17, 6 BCE, this event accounts for the mysterious appearance of a star-like celestial body, its movement in the sky, and the belief that its appearance marks the birth of a new king.

But a special planetary alignment that looked like a star could have motivated their journey. It also would explain why no one else in the region noticed, likely because it wasn’t enormously bright. […]

Mathews also believes his theory explains another mystery of the Christmas story. The story says the star preceded the magi during their journey and then stopped over the place of Jesus’ birth. In astronomical terms, Mathews said planets usually appear to move from west to east relative to the background stars. But in a phenomenon known as “retrograde” motion, the outer planets appear to change to a westward motion when the Earth, with its shorter orbit, overtakes the outer planets. About six months later, Jupiter would appear to stand still as it reversed its motion to eastward again.

As an astrophysicist, Mathews said he feels a kindred connection to the magi astrologers of old. “Today, we look at the sky … we’re looking for the truth revealed in the heavens,” he said. “And in that case, in that time, I believe God honored that sincere attempt by those viewers of the heavens of this pending event.”

4. A couple of weeks back, the church hall of Giles Fraser’s parish collapsed after many years of wear and tear. With the demolition trucks finishing the job, Fraser wrote a poignant, Christmas-themed piece on the church’s rich Anglo-Catholic history:

Why do I love it here? Partly, because there is so little bullshit. When things have been stripped back this far, there is no room left for pretending. And there is a huge liberation in that. In circumstances like those in my parish, people are thrown back on the core values of the faith: love God and love each other, the beauty of holiness, the need we have for each other. Don’t get me wrong, we have failed to realise this vision a lot of the time. But failure presents no block to the persistence of hope. Indeed, in the Christian story, failure is where hope begins, almost a prerequisite. This, I take it, is the message of the cross, of the cry “my God, why have you forsaken me.” If hope can find its feet in a place such as this, it can find a place amid all the twisted rubble of my life too. If hope survives the cross, it can survive anything.

And the story of the emergence of hope in a world of brokenness is why Christmas is not just a tall tale of angels and shepherds. It’s a depth charge of hope dropped right into the middle of human darkness. I suspect many of those public voices now calling for new restrictions on our Christmas festivities don’t quite appreciate its full existential import. To Christians, it’s not just a few days of merry making — though I am all for that — it is a celebration of hope, of good news exploding into time and place. And this hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is two things. First, the reframing of daily struggle and hardship within a much wider story in which good is always more powerful than evil. And second, it is a spiritual form of bloody-minded defiance. It is Gandalf standing on a narrow ledge, staring the beast in the eye, shouting from the depths of his being: “You shall not pass!” That is the point of my parish — we wage a war on bleakness.

With the hall coming down, something of the parish’s connection with its Anglo-Catholic forbears feels more distant. But we will, of course, survive. No, we will flourish. And the first signs of our revival will come this Christmas eve when we allow ourselves to celebrate our Lord’s birth with unbowed enthusiasm.

5. Lots of humor this week. Leading off the laughs, McSweeney’s has some top-shelf, irreverent Bible humor: “AITA for Being Mad at my Husband’s Weird Family Member for Turning Water Into Wine at our Wedding.” The bride is understandably none too pleased — “Excuse me!?! This was my wedding!! Not a space for you to promote your weird cult!!”

And this one probably hits a little too close to home: “You Can Skip the First Few Seasons of Your Child’s Life, Because it Doesn’t Really Get Good Until Season 6.”

And don’t even get me started on the Parents. […] They spend all day, every day, looking haggard, defeated, bored, and desperate. It’s obvious they’re just waiting until the Child goes to bed so they can clamp eyes on the screens they love way more than the Child. But then, once the outlandishly elaborate bedtime routine is over, they come back downstairs and talk about almost nothing but the Child, repeating all these cute things they claim the Child said or did. […] Like, do the writers even realize we’ve been watching the entire episode? We know these Parents can barely stand that kid, so don’t insult the audience’s intelligence trying to redeem them with this fake affection at the end of the episode.

Ouch …

For the existentialist nerds out there, there’s the Hard Times:Suspicious Login Email Asking “Is This You?” Prompts Existential Crisis.” And for some low-anthropology humor of the week, this one is pretty on the nose: “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond, I Suck at Communicating and Have No Desire To Ever Change.”

Ditto Christmas House Lights

6. Finally, the Washington Post featured a heart-warming story about a mother-daughter laundry feud-turned-charity fund-raiser. Yes, you read that right. It all started with a week-old dirty sock on the bathroom floor, the kind that teenagers overlook and drives parents crazy. But instead of becoming the sin-judgment-rebellion narrative we are all so familiar with, the mother decided to inject a little bit of humor into the situation. What happened next is a fun parable of grace in practice:

First, she created a small museum label, complete with a black border and bold title, which she taped to the wall above the sock.

She gave the display a name: “The Forgotten Sock.” Below it, she wrote: “Mixed Media” and “On loan from the collection of the artist.” “I thought, oh, that will be funny, and she will roll her eyes at me and pick up the sock,” Campbell said.

But Kestrel had a different plan. Rather than reacting with a giggle (or an eye roll) and throwing the neglected sock in the laundry bin, Kestrel [the daughter] decided to play along. She positioned the sock on a wooden pedestal she made last year, a contribution she said elevated the exhibit. That’s when the display unexpectedly turned from a mother-daughter standoff to an elaborate and absurd bonding activity. Kestrel, who is in remote school and spending a lot of time in the house, was glad for the distraction.

Campbell said the display needed an audience. So they placed barnyard animals around the sock, and even erected a mysterious monolith — a nod to the structures that have popped up (and subsequently disappeared) in recent weeks around the world.

Eventually, the scene became crowded, as the mother-daughter duo continued adding an array of elements to liven the display, including a white picket fence, more toy figures, Christmas lights, a flameless candle, a pirate ship and other miscellaneous objects. Some additions were homemade (including the monolith, which they created by painting a piece of matte board silver).

Pictures of the drama (nativity scene?) were taken and posted to social media, garnering enough attention to raise money for a Children’s Charity. Merry Christmas, indeed.

Crazy Sock Bathroom Display

Strays: