Just Looking at Christmas

Column by Rev. Jim Burklo on 24 December 2020 4 Comments


Our granddaughter Rumi and I have a Christmas tradition of doing arty projects together.  Among them are making Christmas crèches out of wood and tin.  We put them on the fireplace mantel at Advent.

Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, and wise men gaze at the baby Jesus in the manger.   You could hardly call them “action figures”.  You could call them “looking figures”.

Not just “looking”, but “just looking”.

My daily contemplative prayer practice aims at this experience.

Most of the time, if I’m looking at all, I’m looking for something. Looking up something. Looking into something. Most of my looking has agendas, preconditions, prejudices, assumptions. There’s something I want, and I’m using my senses to find it.

Looking without preconditions, looking without the intention of seeing any particular thing in a certain way, looking only for the sake of looking –  now, that’s a very different experience.

Every day I take a long walk up a hill, with the intention of being as mindful as possible, aiming to take a God’s-eye-view of all that is present within and around me.  I love rocks, fossils, native plants, grand vistas. I find myself looking for these things along the trail. And that quest has its own charms and satisfactions. But far greater and deeper is the satisfaction of looking at this impulse to “look for”, letting it go, and then practicing “just looking”. Looking without any purpose or goal or aim. Just observing what is, as it is, in the moment that it is, then moving on and just looking at what is next, as it is, in the moment that it is. Without naming or describing or presuming anything about what is. And then being aware that the One Who Just Is is doing the looking.  And that One is beyond observation, time, judgment, opinion, evaluation, or description.

This kind of looking leads to awe and wonder and discovery.  It is the wellspring of creativity.  It makes it possible to see the needs of other people that might otherwise escape attention. After a while of practicing this divine way of looking, I begin to appreciate what I am seeing on its own terms, not just my own.

Such is the looking at the figures in the crèche scene at the birth of Jesus. The crèche is a window into the eternal quality of the now, an icon of the divine point of view. It is the slack-jawed, timeless, aimless, free, worshipful Awe that is Love that is God.

Maybe the wise men came to Bethlehem looking for the newborn King. But when they got there, and laid down their gifts, I like to think that they ended that quest and just looked at a little baby lying in the hay. Without believing anything about him, without assuming anything about him, without defining him. Just looking with full attention, total presence, and pure love.

So, too, the shepherds looked. They had been “keeping watch” over their sheep. Then they were “keeping watch” over Jesus. Just looking.

So it was with the angels in the myth of Christmas. The biblical Greek word for angel means “messenger”. Somebody who reports on what is, as it is. Not on what is supposed to be. Not on what we wish it was. Angels “watch over”: they just look, and then report what they see. The Greek word for “gospel” is related: “euangelion” or “good message“. The gospel is not just a set of writings in the New Testament.  It is the way of seeing the world that was born at Christmas.  It is what we see when we just look at what is, as it is, when and where it is, without filters or interpretations or preconceptions.  Abba Bessarion, one of the early Christian “desert fathers” who spent their lives in contemplative prayer in the wilderness, offered up this admonition on his deathbed:  “The monk should be all eye, like the cherubim and seraphim.”

The  Cloud of Unknowing is a profound text of Christian contemplative mysticism by from the 14th century.  Its anonymous author wrote that unlike humans, angels “are unable to waste time.”  I aspire to this quality of angelic nature.  When angels are doing nothing but hovering close and watching, they are doing something purposeful, useful, and priceless.  In the depths of our souls, each of us wants to be known and seen as we really are.  Sometimes just staying close and watching silently, with an open heart and mind, is the greatest gift we can offer another person – more precious than any tangible gift that can be wrapped and laid under a tree.

It’s an epiphany – the biblical Greek word for a sudden appearance or manifestation – to discover the difference between “looking for” and “just looking”. When I’m “just looking”, I can see divine incarnations that I might miss when I’m “looking for”.  And that kind is the seeing that we celebrate at Christmas.

I imagine one of the wise men, while “just looking” at the newborn Christ, meditating this way:

What wisdom I have
Awakens me to my blindness.
I cannot see light itself:
What I know of light
Is only an alluring shadow
Of what it is and does.

From billions of years away in space-time,
Through darkness intervening,
At its inconceivable speed
The light of an exploding star passes
Through the dark seas of my eyes,
Illuminating the dark curves of their retinas.
But I cannot see the glow of their cells:
I can only perceive the messages they send
To my brain, and from there to my soul.

Thus Hope passes,
Unseen and undetected,
Through this dark world.
What retina receives and translates it
Into Joy and Wonder?

An eye comes into the world:
A retina I cannot perceive
That will see for me,
Beyond my dark despair.

A star in the East!
This eye tells me
To follow it
All the way to the Source
Of the truer Wisdom
That is Love.

~ Rev. Jim Burklo



I find the notion of human sacrifice abhorrent, and yet the whole dogma of the church is based on the crucifixion of Jesus.   The cross wasn’t even used as a symbol for a hundred years AD, and yet we have it used in church today.   I love the Lord, and I know my sins are forgiven, but worship in church is a problem.  How do I cope?


Dear Raymond,

It’s true that some expressions of Christianity and different denominations lean more heavily on the crucifixion and Jesus’s death.  Jesus, we know however, spoke for life and creation.  Jesus looked for ways to include, to affirm and to love all beings, especially the ones who have been tossed aside.  Jesus offered instruction, through teaching and acts of healing, that invited everyone listening to do their inner work and to find more and more ways to love publicly, generously, and inclusively so as to dismantle all forms of oppression and injustice.  Jesus’s death - literal or symbolic - is important, but Jesus’s life and what the resurrection invites for His followers, is where Christian practice and community become engaging!  If your current experience of church feels more connected with death than life, it might be an interesting experiment to notice and explore the places and spaces where you feel the life-affirming teachings of Jesus – is it in conversation with a dear friend?  Prayer?  In nature?  Particular songs or pieces of art?  Worship happens in many ways.  Give yourself permission to discover what works well for you.

Perhaps another piece is to expand the associations some of us hold with the cross.  The late Angeles Arrien, a cultural anthropologist, researched 5 shapes that have appeared throughout the span of humanity, and across cultures and geography.  The cross is one of the five, and regardless of the time in history or the geography in which it appears, interpreters agree that the cross speaks to relationship.  Isn’t that interesting?  In Dr Angeles’ words, the cross “symbolizes the process of relationship and integration.  [It is a symbol] connected to a creative project, to another person or to oneself and it demonstrates balanced connection…  Most societies see the symbol of the cross as two parts merging to create a greater whole.” (p.39)[i]

In no way do I offer this as a distraction from how the cross was used at the time of public crucifixions.  As you said, human sacrifice is abhorrent, and the public ritual that was Jesus’s torture and subsequent death evokes horror, grief, rage and disbelief because it should!  But as you observe the cross in your church and in other spaces, perhaps there is additional wisdom in holding this multi-cultural understanding of the cross, as well?  Jesus most certainly looked for and invited integration, balance and relationships that sought out the greater whole.

Thank you for this provocative question!  May there be some food for thought in the suggestions I’ve shared.

~ Rev. Lauren Van Ham

[i] Arrien, Angeles. Signs of Life: The Five Universal Shapes and How to Use Them, Tarcher/Putnam. 1992



4 thoughts on “Just Looking at Christmas

  1. Dear Jim: I believe the time of Christmas is for innocent little children with gift-giving to show generocity and love of family and community. As a member of the Progressive Christianity.org , however, I can nolonger use the birth of Jesus Christ in a pagan celebration, especially on the 25th of December any more. And since the death of Jesus on the cross can nolonger be used as the sacrificial lamb (It was for the blood-thirsty “god”, not the God of love) which had been misused by Paul when he had suddenly decided to change from the Persecutor of Christians that had been his former belief of the Jewish Law against all Christians. We all know that when Matthew wrote the story of Jesus as being born in Bethlehem, it had been 80 years after Jesus was born, and 50 years after his death. Matthew had never met Jesus or Mary in Nazareth at all. As Bishop Jack Spong pointed out, there were 94 miles between Bethlehem and Nazareth! Luke also wrote his story of Mary to hastily travel those miles in order to give birth on a Manger there.
    Furthermore, Jack Spong said that the only way a combination of Matthew and Luke stories which were could not have happened except in the Christmas cards being sold by modern merchants.
    I would like to memorialize those brave doctors and nurses who died during this horrible year of Covid-19 when they saved the lives of the victims near death, both in China and in the USA and other countries. Their deaths would mark the Christmas spirit at this time.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  2. Dear Jim: As you are aware, Covid-19 has ben davastating inthe USA while it has been under control in China or several months already. Many different vaccines have been developed. But China got started her scientific studies before America or UK did. By the end of the yer 2020, China has come up with the leading effective vaccines first. The Covid-19 Vaccines produced by two Bio-Pharmaceutical companies in China have been given up to Phase III Clivical trials on 600,000 Chinese people with good results. Outside of China, 阿联酋 = United Arab Emirates (UAE),约旦 = Jordan,秘鲁 = Peru,阿根廷= Argentina,埃及 = Egypt, ten different countries have received vacine Phase III clinical trial, with 510000 people of 125 races or counries tested wth no ill effecys. The Vaccines produced in China under WHO cooperation are meant for world properties, with the price based on its cost rather than for profit. Those poor people from under developed countries shall be given Chinese vaccines first. Old and feble or sickly people and children shall be given ite highest priority. Doctors and nurses shall also receive the Chinese vaccines first.
    I believe that if Jesus were to appear her today, he would have approved what China is trying to do for the rest of the world. That would be the true love of God in my opinion.
    Eugene, frm Suzhou, China

  3. Dear Jim: Jack Spong and several other writers have mentioned that as Progressive Christianity.org, we would need to look at what other religions have to offer us on top of what we have learned from Jesus, which could also bring us closer to the spirit of God if we could still us that term. In this year of Covid-19 we have seen the spirit of the Chinese people coming together in a coheasive self-made manner automatically forming smaller communities with everyone wearing his or her face mask in all the cities and villages of China. New hospitals had quickly sprung up to house those patients when they were needed around Wuhan and other cities under sieage by the Virus.
    People formed quarantines in communities almost automatically with self help and self-determined by themselves without exceptions. Bus drivers and people working around the high speed trains and subways automatically refused entry for antone without wearing masks. Smaller communities all had quanantined.
    We have seen doctore and nurses willing to work for the old and feeble people withouy regard as to whether they could pay for the hospitals in Wnhan or other places. We’ve seen how some of the doctors in China contracted the virus while working vlosely with those patients and later died as a direct result. We’ve seen nurses working in the ICU wards for too many hours and later also cintracted the virus and died. Most of these brave souls had never known Christianity at all. But almost all of them had been taught the Chinese antient “manners” from Confucius 3000 years ago: “Love the elderly as you love your own parents and grandparents; love all the young children the same way as you would love your own offspring.” I believe that was the reason how China was able to clean up Covid-19 virus in China within three months.
    Yet while the President of America in USA kept blaming this Virus as the “China Virus” but has done nothing to stop it in the country, telling everyone just to do their free will, the US has evded up becoming the Champion of Covid-19 when so many people have died.
    Donald Trump ordered military forces to stop the ratial prejudice between black and white discrimination in the Country, spending huge amount of money to send the Naval and Air forces around the globe in his show of American muscles during peace time. To top it all, D. Trump ordered to destroy the Colleges of Confucius in America! He came up with his self-made term of “China Threat” when there was absolutely no threat at all from the Chinese.
    The 1.4 billion Chinese people are at peace the whole time.
    Eugene, as representative of ProgressiveChristianity.org in China

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