Christmas and Possibility
Truly He taught us to love one another;
I have found that too often people's vision of what is possible, and therefore how they live in light of that possibility, is easily limited by the circumstances in which they exist. Too often social location, past experience, religious tradition and beliefs, personal ideas and habits, and relationships limit what people can envision as truth. What people envision as truth most often defines the parameters of what people can conceptualize as possible. And how people see the world in terms of truth and possibilities usually determines how they act on a daily basis.
For example, people who have fallen into a well and are then trapped at the bottom are limited in what they can envision. There are some of those at the bottom of the well whose entire range of vision is confined to the well, who never think to look beyond their own narrowly defined existence. So, they resort to logical arguments of why the bottom of the well is the best of all possible worlds. They even get to the point of theologizing that their present circumstances are how the world was created to be, forgetting that there exist possibilities beyond the well (see The Jonah Syndrome).
Some may, indeed, have a vision of something different. But that vision is mostly defined by, and therefore limited to, their own circumstances. Their vision is dominated by trying to get out of the well. It is not necessarily wrong to envision getting out of the well. The tragedy is that for many when they do get out of the well, it is all too easy to continue allowing the vision of getting out of the well to dominate how they live rather than expanding their vision to the much larger range of possibilities that now lies before them. Failure to lift their eyes beyond the well means limited vision. Limited vision means limited possibilities.
Unfortunately, many religious people today fall into one of these groups. Some celebrate their spiritual liberation, yet their own experience limits their view of the world to wells and rescue methods. While that is not irrelevant, it is a view cast in negative terms and so is not a very large vision of possibility. Others contend that present circumstances, in a world defined by human sin and failure, is the best that we can hope for. Some even argue that a world in which injustice and oppression are the norm is really a world that God himself has created and wills. And yet such preoccupation with dark holes and entrapment are more about impossibility than hope.
The birth of Jesus came into the midst of a host of impossible conditions. A people suffering under the occupation of a conquering army. A corrupt and collaborating priesthood. A religious system intent on preserving the status quo. A woman who could not have children. A virgin teenage girl. Disheartened people who found it difficult to believe that anything could change, and perhaps on some level feared change. And yet, as the prophet Isaiah had said 700 years earlier, God is a God of new things, of new possibilities, of things that we have forgotten how to dream about. Not only was Jesus' birth an embodiment of that newness, his life constantly called us to new possibilities, to new visions of what can be, to ways of living that challenge the dead end wells of impossibility.
"Some men see things as they are and say why. Others dream things that never were and say why not."* People of God, Christians, of all people, should be able to envision the world in terms of possibility, to envision a world beyond the limits of our own experiences or doctrines, a world in which righteousness and justice are the norm, a world in which people really do love one another, where "the slave is our brother," and where "all oppression shall cease." It is not because we as human beings are so capable. It is rather because we know and understand that God is a God of newness and possibility in the face of impossibility, evidenced by the birth of Jesus who is the Christ. That vision of newness through God should allow us to live and practice that reality in our daily lives in transformational ways, as God enables us to do so. It should enable us, with God's help, to live in ways that challenge all structures of oppression, all vestiges of injustice, all bastions of prejudice and fear, and to live the Kingdom of God boldly as a present reality.
The Old Testament prophets had such a vision of possibility.
And Paul was convinced that in Christ there is nothing short of a new creative act of God at work in people's lives and in the world.
Whatever else the Advent and Christmas seasons might be about, they are about possibility, the profoundly held conviction that how things are is not the way things should be, and that God is at work in the world to bring newness, to bring justice, and to bring peace. If we believe that, truly believe it, perhaps we might learn to envision possibility beyond the bottom of the well. Perhaps we might learn to dream things that never were and ask, with God's help, why not? That vision calls us not just to celebrate freedom from the well, but also to envision God's Kingdom as a present reality, to live out God's new creation in everyday life, to allow God genuinely to transform the world through us.
* [Ted Kennedy paraphrasing a line from the play Back To Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw, eulogy for Robert Kennedy, 1968]