Contemplating the Nativity

It is December, and we are coming to the end of a long season of commercial clamor. I am old enough to be a grandmother, and it has been this way throughout my entire lifetime. Each year I’m taken aback at how early the clamor begins—now in October, before Halloween. In North America, it is difficult not to be caught up in a celluloid (or tabloid, or television, or radio, or iPod, or Internet) vision of endless resources, perpetual economic growth, and the "need" to have more. This sparkling, jingling, bustling culture of more seemingly has always been in place, relatively unquestioned, certainly not by society at large. Friends have traditionally eschewed both the relentless pursuit of more—in the material sense—and the seasonal clamor. And we have been a long-standing, far-from-perfect counterculture, aiming at the practice of simplicity.

This past October, while I was feeling surprise at secular Christmas trappings creeping into places I’d not expected them, I traveled with my husband and younger son to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to attend a weekend conference on peak oil planning, sponsored by an organization called Community Solutions. "What is peak oil?" I’ve been asked by otherwise well-informed Friends. Peak oil is where we are now. Oil production peaked in the U.S. during the 1970s, and has been in decline (less extracted; what’s left, harder and more expensive to extract) in the U.S. ever since. Peak oil is where we are now as a world community—we have reached the peak of world production, and decline worldwide is immediately before us. Oil is not the only precious resource that we are going to find increasingly scarce (and therefore costly). Natural gas, coal, and many minerals needed for manufactured goods are also going or about to go into decline, particularly as the demand for them is inexorably rising as other countries, like China and India, seek to emulate our very questionable North American lifestyle. Climate change, with all the disruption and suffering it will bring in its wake, is just one result of the excesses of industrialized cultures. The social, ecological, economic, and cultural implications of depleting resources needed to maintain industrialized cultures are enormous. Bigger than anything that’s arrived so far in my lifetime.

What has this got to do with the birth of Jesus—the Prince of Peace? Everything, I suspect. If we contemplate the traditional vignette—mother and child, beheld in a simple stable by amazed and adoring father, shepherds, kings, farm animals, and angels—we have a tableau that can speak to the immediate needs of the world in which we are living. No high technology there, and no need of it. No surfeit of material goods, no sparkling lights, no piped-in jingles. But kings and shepherds rendered equals, sharing a profound experience, surrounded and warmed by the presence of animals, cohabiters of the creation, all affirmed and upheld by heavenly spirits. What is in that tableau encompasses all that we truly need: family, community, egalitarian access, simplicity, participation in the natural world, generous giving of one’s best, respect, celebration, wonder, worship, awe, and love. Is the Bethlehem scene far-fetched and remote from our commercialized, industrialized, greedy, and combative world? Is it irrelevant? Perhaps there is nothing more relevant at this time. Perhaps it can offer us a paradigm by which we can live, a paradigm for a tenable future.

In this issue, Helena Cobban shares her "Reflections on the World Since 9/11" (p.10). Years of living in Lebanon and traveling the world as a journalist underscore her understanding of the urgency of finding nonviolent resolution to conflicts. Keith Helmuth writes at length about "Friends Testimonies and Ecological Understanding" (p.14). I recommend these articles to you, and encourage you to contemplate how our Quaker testimonies—and communities—can help us relate to a planet increasingly in need of restored relationships and true stewardship.

May the real joys of the season be yours.