The shadows look so real. But that’s all they are. Just shadows. It takes the light to discover the truth−to see reality. But sometimes the light hurts. When I was a kid, my dad took me on all kinds of treks through the woods, and in the distance my mind would see all kinds of things in the shadows cast from the light shining through the trees. For some reason dinosaurs were featured regularly in my shadow visions (this seemed to happen the most after I saw Jurassic Park in theaters), yet when I took a few steps and the light changed, it was always just trees and shadows of trees. Sometimes I was relieved to discover the truth, but other times I was downright disappointed. I think part of me really wanted a brontosaurus to be lurking around the bend...but definitely not a velociraptor!
When I studied Classics in college, I learned there’s actually something to this light and dark thing. Around 380BC a man named Plato wrote a book called The Republic where he describes his ideal society, and in one chapter he makes a famous comparison called “The Allegory of the Cave.” He says we’re all a little like prisoners chained from birth to watch shadows on the wall of a cave, mistakenly thinking that the shadows are real (the details aren’t really explained...like who did the chaining or why...but the message is clear: people mistake the shadow of a horse for the horse itself). But imagine if one prisoner broke free and ventured toward the light at the mouth of the cave−what a vision! To see the real world for the first time! Sure, it hurts your eyes at first, but how much more beautiful is life out there in the sun than all those shadows beneath!
I think Christmas is like that. We mistake the gift for the giving. We trade reality for a shadow. As a kid there’s a certain magic to waking up, believing Santa brought all those presents in the night, faithfully descending every chimney around the globe and somehow knowing just what you wanted! Then the light hurts when you discover the truth. The magic fades, but somehow the excitement remains. Or does it? The more gifts you receive, the less each one means, and it’s possible to expect that same excitement but be disappointed when it doesn’t come.
This was my son’s first time really being aware of the magic of Christmas, and I’ve rediscovered my excitement through him. You know, now that I look back, I don’t think it was ever about the gifts or the money or all the stuff. That was just a shadow. What it’s really about is the human connection and validation that comes in knowing that someone cares enough for you to seek the things that make you happy and give them to you. I mean, how much of that stuff really has any value? You find much of it at yard sales in a year or two selling at 2-5% its market price. Take a ceramic trinket, for instance. It’s basically just dirt (clay hardened in a kiln...but still mostly dirt). It’s basically worthless. But if you know it’s hand-made, if you know the symbolism behind it, if you know it took great effort to get it to you, it can become a priceless part of your life. The spirit of giving, and not the gift itself, is really what Christmas is all about.
John knew about Plato, about breaking free of that cave and seeing the light. There was a word for that. The Greek word for finding that ultimate reality was logos (or literally: “word”−it’s where we get our words like logic, logical, logistics, etc.). John knew all this, so he said something like: “Hey, all you philosophers! You know that ultimate reality you’re always looking for? Well, it came to Earth. His name is Jesus.” Except he said it more like this:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. (John 1, NRSV)
So don’t miss it. It might hurt to discover Christmas is not really about the gifts. Step into the light, even though it hurts. Embrace the spirit of giving that’s trying to light your way. ~Justin