Third annual lighting of the Westmont Christmas tree
December 1, 2004
As I reflected on what to say today about traditions like this one, what struck me above all was how odd they are. Gathering every year to celebrate the turning on strings of lights around a big tree? Isn't that strange?
And not just this tradition, but just about every tradition. Become an anthropologist for a moment. Tour the world. Human traditions are just downright odd.
Wedding ceremonies, for instance. A Japanese tea ceremony? Jumping over a pole? Being carried around on a chair? What do tea or wooden poles or chairs have to do with marriage? — Then again, what do brides' garters? Or gold rings? Or never-again-wearable bridesmaids' dresses?
Traditions are the life-rhythms of all the peoples of the world. We build these bizarre rituals at every juncture of our lives, and we keep piling little new forms of strangeness on top of the old ones. So are all people odd?
Yep. Let's admit it: people everywhere are odd, as no other species is. We are all ec-centric. There is no center!
What could this mean?
It points to the fact that unlike any other species on earth, people are created in God's image. And the God we image is as odd as odd gets: God is holy.
I think the forms of oddness we so cherish betray our capacity, our longing, and our incapacity to be different; and not just different for the sake of being different but different in the way God is different.
Don't misunderstand me here. Not all odd things are holy. In fact, many of them are unholy. Spring Sing, for instance!
But all holy things are odd. These particular forms of oddness tell the strange story of how God came to save us from our rebellion against our own God-given strangeness, to save our capacity to be different from our incapacity to be different in the right ways.
You see, we have turned our oddness against each other and against God and against God's creation, and we have institutionalized those rebellions into structures that make those deadly eccentricities appear ordinary and even normal. Some of those structures are een religious in nature — idols. Holy oddness broke into that world, disarmed its regimes of unholy ordinariness, and created something new, something truly new.
Our holy traditions are our ways of remembering how God did it. At the heart of just about every one of those traditions is an image of subversive strangeness, of the presence of Strangeness himself, in the midst of what we had thought to be normal:
Angels in concert in a cold, dark field.
A Lord swaddled in a drafty stable.
A virgin mother.
A King on a cross.
An empty tomb.
Water that buries, and oil that breathes new life.
Broken bread and an emptied cup.
Stockings around a fireplace, into which a saint will stuff gifts for multitudes.
Lights on a tree, perhaps once a sacred pagan tree, that now doesn't just absorb light to live, but radiates it to enlighten the world.
Freaky! Downright crazy!
That's the way holiness is, when it bursts through the so-called ordinary things of this world and reveals the One who is remaking us into who we really, really were all along.