Christmas begins in the desert. It ends there, too.
I know our traditional carols sing of frosty winds of the bleak midwinter, and pine trees and evergreen wreaths are the symbols of the season.
But I also know that Christmas begins – and ends – in the desert. From the cry of the prophet Isaiah in his people’s exile, to the birth of Mary and Joseph’s child in that barn in Bethlehem, the Christmas story is a desert story.
It’s not even the high desert of Santa Fe. Nazareth is only 1,200 feet in elevation, lower than Phoenix, Arizona. Bethlehem soars to 2,500, not exactly Alpine. Both areas only get 25 inches of rain annually, enough to grow crops – in the good years, with irrigation.
Like other desert places, winters are bitterly cold and summers hot and dry. In late spring, sand-filled Khamaseen winds from the Arabian Desert blow through the region.
Jesus was born in a desert place. He was born into a desert time, too, under Roman domination. That’s why his birth was in Bethlehem and not his parents’ hometown of Nazareth. Flexing his imperial muscle, Caesar Augustus demanded a head count of all his subjects. What Caesar wanted, Caesar got – even if a pregnant woman and her carpenter husband had to load up the donkey with diapers and head for a strange town.
A desert time, a desert place. That’s where Christmas begins. It stays there for a long time. After the child is born, the parents can’t go back home to Nazareth. Caesar’s toady king, Herod the “Great,” doesn’t want any new king around, so they must flee to Egypt, another strange desert place where nobody knows their name.
So perhaps instead of “snow on snow” at Christmas, we should sing of “rock on rock” and decorate cholla and saguaro cactus rather than pine and fir trees.
Though it may challenge some of our Christmas traditions, I believe the fact that Christmas begins in the desert, and stays there, is actually the best part of the Christmas story. If God could be born there, God can be born in the harsh landscapes of our lives and our world.
Christmas reminds us we need not fear the desert, nor the dry times of our own lives nor the wilderness that this world can sometimes be. In the first Christmas, new life was born even in a desert time and place. This Christmas, in the desert places and times of our lives, new life can still be born. In dry, harsh landscapes – be they of our inner world or the world around us – God is still present, just as God was present that cold night in Bethlehem. I think that’s very good news this season, and every season.
God was in the desert for Joseph and Mary that first Christmas. God will be with us, our loved ones, and our world this Christmas, too.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” promised the Prophet Isaiah in the time of his people’s exile. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom.” That was true for Isaiah. It was true for Mary and Joseph. It is still true for us. Christ is born, even in the desert. Especially in the desert.
Rev. Talitha Arnold
United Church of Santa Fe Whole Earth Covenant
(Adopted by vote of the whole Congregation on June 21, 2009)
“We endeavor to live in harmony with all creation as stewards of the earth.” In keeping with this, and in the face of a changed world, we propose this Whole Earth Covenant.
We live and move and have our being in God, Creator of the cosmos.
God’s creation is seamless. It births and sustains all life, together.
The lesson of creation’s seamlessness is clear: planetary health is primary, human well-being is derivative. If the rest of nature does not thrive, neither do we.
Yet now we are altering the conditions for life as we know and cherish it. The same achievements that have taken some across the threshold of abundance have brought much life to the brink of ruination. We are at a turning point of our own making and the future of Earth’s community of life is uncertain.
Accelerated climate change increases planetary uncertainty. Yet Christian faith prepares us for an uncertain world. Forged in turbulent times, Christian faith has again and again sustained and renewed people of many cultures, races, and regions amidst uncertainty and danger. As we practice vigilance to emerging needs Christian faith may call us to even more radical action than we presently envision.
Signs of peril are also tests of faith. The immensity and uncertainty pertaining to climate change and the eco-crisis dare not sever bonds between persons or with the rest of life. Solidarity and justice are imperatives. This means that the moral and spiritual climate is as vital to sustainability as the physical climate is cause for concern and sometimes despair.
In sum, God calls us to dedicate ourselves anew to an Earth-honoring fait
Accordingly, we commit ourselves to the following actions:
As a Congregation:
Develop through worship, education and our interpretation of Christian traditions, a spirituality that reflects our home in the desert and our respect for all of creation in all its diversity. We learn from the desert, its peoples and their heritage; and we celebrate its life.
Model institutional practices that sustain and restore resources. We will be vigilant to emerging needs and challenge ourselves to continually seek deeper and more effective responses.
Promote justice for humanity and for the rest of creation through education and outreach to the wider community and through support of governmental laws and policies that insure economic and ecological security. Peace and justice to creation, as well as in creation, is the extension of our ongoing commitments as a community of faith and as leaders in the wider Christian community.
Deepen our spiritual awareness of the sacredness of all creation and of God’s call to us to live in harmony with the natural world of which we are a part.
Change our lifestyle and consumption patterns to become more responsible guardians of God’s creation, which sustains us and which we hold in trust for future generations.
Engage the issues threatening our planet while understanding the limits of our comprehension in the face of the complexities of both the problems and their solutions.
Recognize that as desert dwellers we have a special responsibility to protect its delicate ecosystems, and not least, to wisely use water which is precious to all life