Paying attention to Christmas

In her New York Times editorial, Tish Warren cites an “old saying” I never heard before: “Hunger is the best condiment.”  I’d like to think about it a little, using the same context in which she uses it, which is how to live in the season of Advent.

It is impossible for me to consider the word condiment anymore, without considering the much less familiar word, “aliment.”  My brother Karl introduced me to that word and when I asked him what it meant, he gave me a very clear answer: an aliment is what you put a condiment on.  I think it is really true that being hungry makes the food you eat taste better in more or less the same way that ketchup makes the fries taste better.  But hunger is a terrifying aliment.  Imagine eating hunger.

tackylights12Ms. Warren makes a point about the relationship between Advent and Christmas that is often made for the relationship between Lent and Easter.  Prepare for the light and the celebration by facing the darkness and the sorrow.  There is no question that that increases the contrast and increasing the contrast increases the power of the experience.

On the other hand, the more you think about what Christmas means—not the commercial extravaganza, the religious extravaganza—the clearer the meaning of Advent becomes.  Let me give you two examples.

Psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote a very influential article in the Psychological Review in 1957.  It changed forever what I understand a “category” to be.  That might not sound all that religious, and, of course, it need not be, but “messiah” is a category and so is “redemption” and so, crucially, is “expectation.”

Since I have used this article in classes for decades now, I have devised a quick and dirty way to get to the point of it.  This is the quick and dirty way: if you are out looking for fenceposts, any object that might be a fencepost is referred to your conscious awareness for further examination.

I am going to put the full paragraph is a footnote [1] but look carefully at this one sentence: 

It is in this general sense that the ready perceiver who can proceed with fairly minimal inputs is also in a position to use his cognitive readiness not only for perceiving what is before him but in foreseeing what is likely to be before him.

The purpose of Advent is to give us a chance to be “ready perceivers.”  That will require attention, of course, and in our present circumstances, it might require dogged attention.  As Ms. Warren says:

Even among observant Christians, the holiday season has often been flattened into a sentimental call to warm religious feelings…

And allow me to point out the -tension part of “attention.”  That is not accidental.  Nor is the “pay” in the expression “pay attention” accidental.  “Paying” attention costs us and “tension” is a big part of what it costs.  We are looking here at what we get from a willingness to do that work and to be open to receive the gift we cannot receive unless we are willing.

But in the simplest sense, Christmas is just like a fencepost.  If you are ready to see anything that might be a fencepost, you can be ready to see anything that might be Christmas.  Advent is all about things that might be Christmas. [2]

What happens here?  A lot of the things you “see” are not things you really see.  You just expect them to be there and your eye and your brain check them off if they are as you anticipated without your actually seeing them.  This “checking for normal” is not part of your conscious awareness. [3]  But looking again to see “what that was, really” truly is part of your conscious awareness.  You catch yourself in the act of looking back and checking to see what that really was.

Understanding Christmas—which is what Advent is for—is the time for catching ourselves in the act of beginning to pay attention.  Frankly, you can’t pay attention to everything all the time.  You can’t even pay attention to the important things all the time.  But at Advent, you can become the “ready perceiver” Bruner talks about and you can not only “see what is before you” but understand “what is likely to be before you.”

Bonding with the darkness is not going to get that done.  But investing your mind in Christmas can.

I believe in allowing my mind to marinate in the story of the birth of Jesus and for me,15-daily-dependence-shepherds-1 that requires investing my imagination in one or the other (but not both) of the two stories we have: Matthew’s and Luke’s.  This year, it is Luke.  And this is why I separate them.  Here we have the shepherds following the Star of Bethlehem.  Really.

That means that this year I get the gospel of the humble shepherds; the free revelation of God to people no one would believe anyway.  And the angelic announcement is given in language borrowed imperial Rome.

Thus Luke, writing from a later period in the Roman age, associates the birth of Jesus with a famous Roman emperor and suggests that the real bearer of peace and salvation to the whole world is the one whose birth occurred in the town of David and was made known by angels of heaven. [4]

Those are two small parts of the story that defines my advent this year.  So the shepherds and the angels and the tongue in cheek twitting of the emperor are this year’s fenceposts and anything that looks like it might be a fencepost, catches my attention and makes me look twice.  What is called to my mind by the shepherds, who, being told of a stupendous event in a nearby town, said, “Let’s go look.”?  And who, having seen, rejoiced?  And of the snarky little aside to the Caesar, “Savior of the world?  That’s not you.  That’s him,” pointing the the infant son of two poor travelers.

By Christmas day, I will be hungry.  That is, after all, what Advent is for.

[1]  It follows from what has just been said that the most appropriate pattern of readiness at any given moment would be that one which would lead on the average to the most “veridical” guess about the nature of the world around one at the moment—best guess here being construed, of course, as a response in the absence of the necessary stimulus input. And it follows from this that the most ready perceiver would then have the best chances of estimating situations most adequately and planning accordingly. It is in this general sense that the ready perceiver who can proceed with fairly minimal inputs is also in a position to use his cognitive readiness not only for perceiving what is before him but in foreseeing what is likely to be before him. We shall return to this point shortly.

[2]  And, of course, there are false identifications too.  My readiness to see “a Christ story” in even the most un-religious narratives was a scandal and a cause of hilarity among my children.  One would nudge the other, when watching…oh…The Frog Prince, let’s say, and say, “Dad’s going to say it’s a Christ story.”  I did and it is.

[3]  Joan Emerson’s well-known article “Nothing Unusual is Happening” makes that point abundantly and hilariously clear.

[4]  That paragraph from Joseph Fitzmyer’s commentary in the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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