A local group seeks to promote the true meaning of Christmas--and spirituality

Dr. Seuss got the true essence of Christmas right in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! At the end of the story, the Grinch realizes the holiday isn't about materialism.

"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas ... perhaps ... means a little bit more!"

The Grinch's realization is lost on many people, who flit from store to store and even trample each other to get bargains. But change is afoot, thanks to an international movement called the Advent Conspiracy, which seeks to replace Christmas consumption with four concepts: Worship fully; spend less; give more; and love all.

Tucsonans have been participating in this movement with its own Christmas Conspiracy. Activities have included potluck gift-making and a barter bazaar. The last event--at 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 21, at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church--is a service with meditation, a meal, prayer and candlelight.

The events have been coordinated by Join the Living, a soon-to-be nonprofit that focuses on spiritual practices and building community. Co-founders Carol and Kate Bradsen exchanged vows in a blessing ceremony last year.

A goal behind Join the Living is to help others find meaning in their lives.

"I wanted to answer a larger call," explains Kate, an ordained Episcopal priest. "Part of that call is about helping other people answer theirs. The idea is we can all become fully alive in whatever way that means to us."

Specifically, Join the Living focuses on spiritual practice and community building while offering various collaborative projects including a blog, creative liturgical community events (such as the Christmas Conspiracy), an Easter vigil, services and an upcoming magazine called Bread and Oranges.

The magazine "is a collection of personal stories and essays of how people are living with hope, imagination and community," says Carol, a freelance writer and graphic designer.

The couple seeks to move forward with a new living model called the Restoration Project. Seven ministers and activists meet weekly and are interested in living in a spiritual community and doing social-justice work.

"Our bottom line is about living with love, justice and peace," says Kate. "We want to all live in close proximity and offer retreats, classes, a pay-what-you-can café and daily prayer."

The couple identifies as Progressive Christians--those who include all people regardless of sexual identity and religious path.

"Progressive Christians read the Bible in such a way that the love and justice of God celebrates the diversity of humanity," explains Carol.

Inclusion is an important part of the Christmas Conspiracy.

"We're taking part of what we believe to be the essence of Christmas, but making it accessible to people who may or may not be Christians, may or may not celebrate Christmas, may or may not go to church but still they can get something from it. ... Christmas is not supposed to be about debt and consumerism. It is supposed to be about relationship, love, justice and peace and the things that are so important to who ... human beings are," explains Kate.

She sums up Christmas in a simple yet profound way: The joy of Christmas is that light shines in the darkness--and that light is the fact that God is always with us, even in the dark of winter.

An eloquent explanation comes from Carol, spoken clearly without pause.

"Christmas is a Christian holiday, and it's been co-opted by our consumerist society as a tool for profit. Jesus was a prophet with a 'ph,' not with an 'f.' The real story is being covered with bows and wrapping paper and credit-card debt.

"The real story is that Jesus came to give the message that God was for the poor, the oppressed. That God wanted to see justice done, wanted to see people love each other, and wanted people to be free and didn't want people to be suffering. That's what Jesus was trying to say and offer people. And that's the message of Christmas, and that's the hope--that God is still with us. ... If we love each other and look out for each other, we can join in with that power, and that force of love will change the world."

Change is the keystone of the Advent Conspiracy, which asks, "What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?"

I'd say if the Grinch can increase his heart size by three, there's still hope for Christmas.

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