The Holly and the Holy

by W. Nicholas Abraham, PhD

Christmas Eve is two days away. And with this annual tradition, comes a variety of emotions and concerns.

There is no happier memory of my childhood than going to bed on Christmas Eve, and knowing beyond a doubt that the next morning Santa would have come through our home and blessed us with gifts.

I don’t doubt the sincerity with which those memories were made, for gifts and pleasure are surely a human desire.

But as Meister Eckhart once said, “We seek God in pleasure and what we find is pleasure but not God.”

As a child, my mind would not entertain such a discerning spirit for pleasure equaled God.
With the mind of an adult, I can now see so clearly the wisdom of this great mystic and understand why we have such wide mood swings. Pleasure is fleeting and will soon walk out the door, and when it does, we are left as abandoned children, not able to understand the difference between the holly, which will die and the holy, which is eternal.

The pleasures that will come with this holiday season, having begun with Thanksgiving and taking us through the Christmas season, are not necessarily going to bring us peace of mind, joy of spirit, or appreciation of life. They may bring us momentary sparks of happiness, but materialism cannot sustain joy and true serenity.

These wonderful days with all the material expressions of love and friendship are certainly to be honored as statements of love. But they are not an end in themselves. For as much as we speak of living in the now, we also concurrently have an eye toward something even greater. In other words, we will never arrive during this earthly existence. And when the day of arrival comes, we will die to our bodies and experience a transformation yet unseen to anyone except as a corpse.

It would do us well therefore, to remember that all gifts are symbols that point to something greater than the earthly matter we experience with our senses.

I recall with much clarity my Liturgy classes in the Seminary with Dr. Nathan Mitchell, a renowned Liturgical Scholar. He made the simple and explicit distinction between a sign and a symbol. For him, the word STOP on a piece of tin on the road was a sign. It was clear, defined and simple in its interpretation. We all know what it meant.

But a symbol is different. A symbol has many layers, points toward many directions, is muddy and unclear. Symbols are not JUST symbols. They are the very essence of both the truth of the moment while thrusting us into the beyond. A gift is such a symbol. It can express love, charity, forgiveness, desire. It can also suggest approval seeking or gratitude, even resentment, depending on the circumstances. A gift has many layers of interpretation and thrusts into the transcendent. Gifts lead to wonder and awe. They lead to joy and humility. They can even lead to anger. I’ve known people to reject my gifts and read them as an easy way to appease my guilty conscience. Gifts are not just about material substances wrapped in a bow. They are an arrow in a bow that shoots us into something greater than we could ever experience through objects.

A wonderful sharing of food at thanksgiving points us to a higher banquet of fullness and creates within us, not a fleeting moment of ecstasy that but a glimpse of what we will never fully see on this earth. And with the joy we experience, we also experience the absence of loved ones, either through death or divorce.

What we experience in the opening of a gift from a loved one is not simply the pleasure that the gift will bring, for its pleasure will surely die in time. A far greater gift is the eternal love that such a thoughtful gesture hopes to offer and the unconditional love that we strive for, knowing that the longing itself is worth the price of never arriving. At the same time, we live with the regret of gifts unaccepted, of broken promises, of dreams that won’t come true, and loves that left us scarred and limping.

But let me be clear. The holidays are not just a stopping place along the route of miserable existence or the replaying of the video of regret. They are the annual opportunities to experience the joy that comes from the longing itself, the peace that comes from knowing we are incomplete and yet worthwhile, frail and broken humans searching for the light, and yet content to live at times in the darkness of uncertainty and patient waiting. The holidays are a time to nourish trust instead of cynicism, charity instead of selfishness, kindness instead of numbness. They are opportunities to begin anew, to put down the weapons of bitterness and jealousy and to take up the napkin of hospitality, giving all those in need a place at our soul’s table. The holidays become Holy days as we transform them into opportunities to bring out the best in ourselves and in others, regardless of the bruises we’ve taken on through the battles of daily living, and to assert our love whether received or not.

The holidays are not to be experienced with dread or anxiety, loneliness or regret. They are to be lived with extraordinary joy in knowing that, just as I felt as a child on Christmas Eve, in the morning joy and love will have arrived to remind us of our inherent worth as human beings, more valuable than all earthly pleasures combined.

This year, when we proclaim Peace on Earth at Christmas, it is my prayer that we do so in the spirit of those priceless words and not just in the momentary pleasure that food and gifts bring.

Let there be peace on earth this Christmas, and let it begin with me.