“Be not afraid”
by Dr. Dennis P. McCann
Visiting Professor & First Gentleman, Silliman University
December 7, 2018
If you are a foreigner here, as I am, Christmas may present a special kind of challenge. How do you get into the spirit of Christmas when you’re so far from home? There’s no snow here; no place on a roof made of nipa and bamboo for Santa to land his sleigh and eight tiny reindeer; and no real Christmas trees.
Of course, we have an artificial tree at our home in Camanjac, one that our grandson Joaqui and I bought at Lee Plaza maybe ten years ago, and now there is an environmentally responsible tree at the President’s House made of recycled plastic water bottles. Good move!
Though it seems too warm to be Christmas, Christmas-y music is omnipresent in virtually every big store, as it has been from early in the “Brrrr” months. Take for example “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” The other day I was in an elevator and the inescapable muzak was playing Brenda Lee’s original version of this song from 1960. I hadn’t thought about that song or Brenda Lee for at least 50 years, but there it was and I was transported back in time to when I was a just a paperboy in Newark, Ohio (“Nerk, Ahia,” as we Hillbillies said it), on a cold snowy Saturday morning trying to collect subscription fees from my customers. I was standing on someone’s front porch, knocking on the door, comforted only by my new transistor radio playing that song. Hearing it again in the elevator was very depressing. It’s all about Christmas in Appalachia, with family, caroling, mistletoe, pumpkin pie, and an arrogance about our place in the world that is almost embarrassing today. “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” won’t do it for me anymore. Neither does “Jingle Bell Rock,” another instant classic from that era.
Looking back, they are harbingers of the materialist orgy that we’ve allowed Christmas to become. The marketing people may have gotten it right. Maybe they should have stuck by the term “Xmas,” since it was all about getting presents, getting stuffed with turkey and cranberry sauce, or getting drunk. It is not about the birth of Christ, not even a sentimental nod to the sweet Baby Jesus.
Getting into the Christmas spirit seems harder every year, even when you’re not so far from home. Every day brings news of unprecedented disaster. This morning, CNN featured a report on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; how it is dying because of rising temperatures in the oceans. Scientists warn us that it may already be too late to mitigate global warming, that we are on a course to shoot past the 1.5 degree Celsius target set in the 2015 COP21 agreements signed in Paris. We learn that 2018 saw a sharp uptick in carbon emissions in the atmosphere, because of accelerated economic growth worldwide. There is every reason to be terribly afraid, if not for ourselves but then for our children and grandchildren, and the condition we will have left this planet in, once we’ve finished doing our thing. Knowing what we know about the looming consequences of our collective activity on this planet, how can we discover the true spirit of Christmas and embrace it?
Being far from home does have its advantages. For one, most of the conventions of the materialistic “Xmas” are, or can be, stripped away—especially if you are a student on a limited budget. How, then, to get into the Christmas spirit, when your heart may not be into it yet?
I got an answer to that question personally yesterday afternoon. After a day of trying to catch up with my emails and work-related assignments, I went to choir practice here. Yes. I’m a proud member of Silliman’s Covenant Choir, and we are practicing a “Cantata” for this Sunday’s service, and for Christmas Eve. It is a modern work called “Mary, Did You Know?” which transforms a medley of traditional Christmas carols, ranging from “Away in a Manger” to the “Hallelujah Chorus,” into an invitation to share in the true spirit of Christmas. I hadn’t been to choir practice since early October, since I was overseas for the past two months. They had sent me a video message from their Christmas party a week ago: “We miss you, Tito Dee!” It almost made me cry. And now, practicing our parts in the Cantata, I was again on the verge of tears, feeling the students’ energy and enthusiasm, as well as sharing once again in their skill as musicians. Catching up with the Cantata, I was overwhelmed by its message of Hope: No matter what, the Christ, the Great “I Am” born among us as Baby Jesus, loves us, and invites us to accept the second chance (or even the “70 times 7” chances) we may need to change our lives. A second birth, indeed!
No doubt it will take something as stupendous as this astonishing Hope to strengthen us to face the future. The message is clear: “Be Not Afraid!” As the Angels in the hills outside Bethlehem announced to the shepherds, “I bring you tidings of great joy. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2: 10-11). Be not Afraid! We are not alone. God is not done with us yet.
I felt this in the welcome that I got from my bench mates in the Covenant Choir. There are many such opportunities for sharing community here at Silliman. If you want to discover and embrace the true spirit of Christmas, just show up. Get involved. If you have nothing better to do Sunday morning, why not come to the 9:30 service and share the Cantata with us? You may find comfort and joy, as well as the courage to face the challenges ahead, just as I did. Be not Afraid! Merry Christmas!