Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Innocuous Benediction

It happened yesterday, on Delta flight #3938 to Richmond, Virginia. And I suspect that it will happen to you, too, sometime in the next few days. And its happening has been increasing in amplitude little by little over the years, such that now it has become a strong yet disturbing majority.

Here is what happened: my wife and I were stepping off the plane. And the flight attendant, a younger man who had been quite entertaining throughout the flight, stood by the cockpit door as the travelers left. "Happy Holidays," he said.

I looked him straight in the eye, and responded differently. "Merry Christmas," said I. And in that quick moment, I saw in the face of this attendant an awkwardness that summed up the whole of our American society. There was the slightest hesitation, a bewilderment at this seemingly blatant spiritual greeting. And then, there appeared a look in his eyes that said to me, "I wish I could greet you the same way."

Quickly he looked away, ready to bestow the same, innocuous, completely politically correct and inoffensive - and therefore utterly meaningless - benediction on the next passenger.

"Merry Christmas" is a rather enchanting greeting, when you stop and think about it. First of all, it is a wish for joy - and that is something we don't often hear in normal discourse. (How often do you greet a person, or leave their company, simply wishing them joy?)

And equally marvelous: this wish for joy is intimately linked with a feast day! But so much more than a feast; it is the feast of Love come down to earth, out of the heavens, undeserved, unexpected, and so utterly humble that nowadays we still try to recreate it in crèches, pageants, and stories. All this, in two simple words.

Our society is making a quiet but disturbing shift over the years. We are assuming that spiritual greetings are politically incorrect, that they don't belong in common parlance. In short, we are taking away from ourselves permission to be spiritual. And yesterday, that dynamic played itself out as we departed an airplane.

But there have been delightful exceptions to this shift, and if this commentary is to be fair (and, I hope, optimistic), this should also be noted. Last year, while traveling across the Pacific ocean on Alaska Airlines, we were served little lunches with accompanying cards on our trays. The cards had little verses from the Book of Psalms! And that day, as I left the plane, I told the flight attendant how impressed I was that their company did such a thing. And she responded "You'd be surprised how many people tell me that!"

Yes, Virginia, there is a Jesus. And it's ok to talk about him. Better yet, it's just fine to bestow a good wish in his name, especially at this time of year.

Merry Christmas! What a wonderful thing to say, and to receive.

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