From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Chutes and Ladders

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 19, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

This past week I joined the cultural frenzy and accompanied a friend for Christmas shopping in the Grand Canyon of toy stores. She was looking for that “something special” for her little ones. Hardly interested in buying anything, I entertained myself by browsing the shelves. I was just amazed at the plenty which spilled out before me. Indeed, I thought, surely there is something in all those toys that says something about what’s important to us human beings. (Perhaps, that’s how the store got its name!)

“Where’s the old-fashioned stuff – like Chutes and Ladders?” I moaned to my friend. Leading me, childlike, by the hand, she took me down two aisles and around two corners to a whole section of board games. There it was: my favorite childhood game! Many an hour we kids spent rolling the dice and moving our game pieces along the board. Of course, if the numbers came out wrong, we’d land at one particularly dangerous chute – and swoosh! – back to the beginning we would have to go. When that happened to me, my brothers would howl with delight. But on occasion, I got my revenge when the same fate would befall them!

Going back and starting the climb all over is not a happy thing to do – especially not if you are close to celebrating victory.

The swoosh of Chutes and Ladders comes to mind as we draw very near the victory celebration of the Christmas feast. This year the so-called holiday season has been shorter than usual and we may want to rush ahead to the celebration. While plowing through the frenzied crowds of shoppers at the toy store, I wondered how many shoppers really knew – or if they knew, actually bought into – why Christmas is so special. Of course, for the children who would be the recipients of the gifts we were purchasing, Christmas probably means presents, tinsel, glitter and other indicators of Santa’s generous presence. Yet we are never too young to know the reason for the season.

I was tempted to stand at the checkout counter with a reporter’s pad, conducting some sort of exit poll. I wonder what responses I would have engendered. Perhaps most shoppers would have acknowledged that somehow the birth of Jesus made Christmas Day special. Standing with benign delight at the crib of a tiny infant in a manger, however, is not sufficient. All babies are cute. If truly pressed for their reason why this particular birth was so special, I wonder how many would have answered with some semblance of insight into the feast that captures pocketbooks as well as hearts this time of year.

Those who did not get the answer correct would have landed on a chute that would have swooshed them back to start their preparations for Christmas all over again. In terms of Christian faith, the chute would take them clear back to the banks of the Jordan River. There they would hear the Baptist’s echoing call to repentance. Without such a call, the Gospel – the Good News of our salvation in Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary – falls empty. To the extent that we recognize our need for a Savior, the more the true joy of Christmas dances from our hearts. In his Son, Jesus, God does far more than merely join the human race, beginning his sojourn as we all do, that is, as an infant born of a woman. He is one of us (mirroring for us our own humanity, as do all infants) but also one with us. The Word of God joins us in all aspects of the human condition except sin – namely, those personal choices we make to be alienated from God, our neighbor and even our true selves.

John the Baptist’s call to repentance, like all prophetic challenges, is a hard and demanding word. It is not spoken in terms of possibilities or maybes. It is an unabashed demand that we face up to the reality of personal selfishness and sin. It is a challenge to recognize the fact that, apart from living in and for God, we wander in a wilderness. The wilderness is not of God’s making. The story of Creation in the Book of Genesis makes that clear. If we are lost and wandering, it is because we have chosen that path for ourselves. Pretend and try as we might, we are not able on our own to provide ourselves the fullness of life, our ultimate happiness. To the extent that we do not recognize selfishness and sin in our lives – the need to be saved – the voices of all heralds of Good News fall on hard hearts and deaf ears. We see that game played out on every page of the Gospels.

Interestingly, every one of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – all begin with reference to John’s call to repentance on Jordan’s bank. In its wisdom, the Church always calls us there, even as we join in our frenzied shopping sprees and other pre-Christmas preparations. Fortunately for us, God does not play games. No “swoosh” happens to us out of the dark. We need not tread through life with fear, hoping that we do not land mistakenly on the wrong spot and have to start over. No hidden chute is going to zip us back to zero. Human history cannot start over. Even the history of our own personal lives cannot begin again. Each day brings us closer ... but to what? More of the same – or fullness of life?

Even though we celebrate it in a special way each year, the Christmas gift of our salvation does not start over, either. Jesus does not get reborn over and over each year like a pagan god who is worshipped in some endless cycle of ritual and decoration. God’s saving love has become incarnate once and for all time. Because of Jesus, we who make our way through life one step at a time knowing full well where we are headed and what our purpose in life is.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane, and author of Catholics Believe, from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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