That old Southern custom of grabbing the advantage on Christmas morning by being the first to say “Christmas gift!” still rules in our family.
But even if that sounds like strange business to you, gift giving — presents — is what kids of all ages usually find at the top of our minds this time of year. The season is all about giving, isn’t it? (And getting!)
This year, especially as our son’s partner has just given birth to our first grandchild and created for us an up-close and personal nativity scene, meanings far deeper than frenzied shopping malls are vivid and dance inside us.
May I share the most vivid meaning with you?
Childbirth, the nativity scene, is the most powerful example we have of letting go.
Physically, not just metaphorically. All gift-giving entails letting go. That’s what giving is. But as mothers and midwives and doulas have said eloquently, when the mother’s body powerfully takes over and the birth process begins, then it’s a matter of letting go control, relinquishing any thought of control, and letting Mother Nature, who knows exactly what to do, take over. Giving birth may be the supreme act of letting go.
Christmas Day of all days is emblematic to many of us of the holiness of childbirth. The ancient story read today in churches is about just that, with its resonant undertones of letting go. Those undertones become dominant later in the story when an old man, Simeon, is so moved by seeing the baby that he exclaims, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace …”
The other supreme act of letting go is willing consent to completing one’s lifetime in death.
From start to end, the Christmas story is about letting go.
In between those two human landmarks, birth and death, the theme of “letting go” is a life lesson we mature into. Children are all about getting presents, then acquiring education, later getting a job, spouse and family, possessing a car and house and all the rest.
In the first half of life, we acquire and construct. In the second half, we begin to realize the equally important value of letting go things that are external to our true self.
We realize that rather than diminishing us in any way, to let go increases our delight.
We become aware that every spiritual tradition, those that celebrate Christmas and those that celebrate other Holy Days, every spiritual path emphasizes the positive value of letting go.
In place of holding on, generous giving. In place of acquisitiveness, detachment. In place of willful defiance, spiritual surrender. In place of amassing wealth and hoarding, simplifying. In place of earning merit, grace.
The wonderful secret of letting go is close to the top in spiritual traditions everywhere. And the secret is most readily available to elders. In fact, it may be the heart of becoming an elder, not just becoming an old-timer or “senior,” but an elder.
Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr was thinking of letting go when he named his book on elderhood “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.”
Franciscans say “falling” because St. Francis spent his life just falling: into the good, the true, the beautiful.
St. Francis displays the beauty of a person who has let go the passion to “have what we love” and experienced the tectonic shift of one who is content to “love what we have.” The way we come to that contentment is by letting go.
One teacher that moves us along the way is the Christmas story. It gently teaches us when we openheartedly attend to the humility and surrender of the birth-giving mother and the humble outpouring of the child. (Paul used the Greek word “kenosis” to describe him, which means “self-emptying” or “letting go.”)
An early Christmas gift I gave myself this year is the book “An Interrupted Life,” the diaries of Etty Hillesum from 1941 to 1943, the year this young Dutch Jewish lawyer died in a concentration camp.
The diaries tremble with courage and hopefulness and self-giving. One quotation puts a wrapping on the Christmas gift I receive in reading her: “Every day I shall put my papers in order and every day I shall say farewell. And the real farewell, when it comes, will only be a small outward confirmation of what has been accomplished within me from day to day.”
Etta proves it: Being an elder is not a matter of age (she was 30), but attitude. Her great gift, her positive value, was knowing how to let go. And her life’s accomplishment was marked, in the words of Peter Marshall, not by its duration but by its donation.
Be blessed this sacred season by finding new depths of soul, where you find you are not alone, but are in the presence of everlasting light and an everlasting love.
Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at email@example.com.