Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Christmas in New Ulm

Christmas -- A Child's birth, the greatest mystery and paradox of all time -- that the infinite complexity of the Divine could become the infinite simplicity of a child. Christmas -- that eternal reminder of our own humility in light of God's grace. We remember at Christman that no matter how complex we might believe our lives to be, if our omnipotent God can take on the simplicity of an infant, so can, and so should, we.

The call to simplicity, the call to the child-like ideal of Christmas, is anathema to much of modern society -- a society that exalts in the superficial and the material, that revels in its complexity and flouts all that which is cosmpolitan. But the real meaning of being is so complex that it is simple, and so simple that it is complex. And it cannot be comprehended by intellect alone. To comprehend paradox, by defitinion, requires faith.

That's why my visit to New Ulm, Minnesota, this past weekend was so refreshing. Strolling down the main street (Minnesota Street) of this town of about 13,000, I noticed the Christmas garlands strung overhead, garlands that included religious symbols -- not just Santa Claus and Reindeer. The town's Glockenspiel, a free-standing bell carrillon, played Christmas songs at noon as it opened a door to reveal a manger scene. Moved by this, I thought, "here is a city where people understand Christmas. Here is a city where the people know how religion can be celebrated, how it can coexist with the state." I think random thoughts like this all the time, but this one really had an impact. Hermann the German, the colloquial name for Arminius, the teutonic leader of the Cherusci tribe who in 9 A.D. drove back three Roman legions, stands more than 100 feet tall, perched on the river bluff overlooking the city. This is also a town that has a sense of its heritage and understands the meaning and value of history, I thought.

It was not presumptuous, not oppressive, not in-your-face; there was no commercialism, no pretense. There was just Christmas. In New Ulm, there was just the message about our call to have the simple faith of the child, to be simple, and to trust in the divine for our salvation -- to not be arrogant, to not mistake the cosmpolitan for the wise.

I thought of an experience in my travels abroad. In China, I met a very elderly man who likely had never left his province, and could only speak the native dialect of Su Zhou, a tongue I could make out only vaguely given my training in Mandarin. The man was a master of Chinese calligraphy, of "shu fa", and after we struggled through conversation for a while, he said he wanted to prepare me a gift. The gift was a scroll he handwrote, the message was aesthetically and intellectually beautiful: "Shu Ye Yan Jin Se" -- "The leaves of the tree from ancient times to modern are the same color." It struck me -- it did not matter that this man had never left China, that he was old, that he knew not of modern ways, his wisdom was wisdom just the same. Just as the leaves of the trees are the same colors throughout time and throughout the world, so too is the nature of wisdom. Worldly experience might make one saavy, but it won't make one wise. Wisdom is too simple and complex. The simple man of rural China could recognize wisdom better than the most cosmpolitan New York lawyer.

And that is the spirit I saw in New Ulm. It was not just the decorations. It was the people. Everywhere I went, the people smiled, were glad to see me, were genuinely glad I was visiting them and their town. From waitresses to tour guides to the wine expert at the local winery, they seemed to grasp innately what many who style themselves more cosmpolitan struggle to understand -- that life's childlike simplicity is its childlike beauty. They are more unknowingly (or knowingly for many, I would guess) complex in their outlook than most who claim to seek enlightenment. In larger cities, in Minneapolis for instance, I see glimpses of these "Christmas"-like attitudes, but they are fewer and farther between. The ACLU and other well-meaning groups divorce religion from the state, drive a wedge between the transcendent and the earthly, exalting the secular at the expense of the transcendent. Overly political churches lose the forest for the trees. Simplicity is demeaned as stupid -- as infantile. But then, we remember, Christ was an infant, and the most complex was the simple. We women and men should rejoice in being simple to the point of being 'useless' -- our highest virtue as humans is not our utility to any particular task, but our existence at the pleasure of God (see my earlier post on the value of uselessness and the nature of love here.

We who live in larger cities would do well to visit our more enlightened friends in cities like New Ulm, to get a dose of their realism, their much closer, actual claim to the meaning of life. I do not want to imply that there is division, city v. rural, us v. them, but I do want to emphasize that people who see the values and virtues of cities like New Ulm perhaps have a better grasp of what really matters than others.

So as the Holidays approach, remember the value of the simplicity of the child, the complexity of simplicity represented by God becoming an infant, and the value of humanity's uselessness. And be thankful for good places like New Ulm.


Post a Comment

<< Home