Monday, December 24, 2007

what christmas can mean

For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come--
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings.
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show
where the babe is that will save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and mothers--sitting beside their children's cribs--
feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, "Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?"
Each night a child is born is a holy night--
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping.

-Sophia Lyon Fahs (1876 - 1978)

I often wonder how many people in our country celebrate Christmas and don't even think about why. In this land of predominant Christianity, it's tradition, I suppose. But very few people I knew growing up affirmatively believed in the divinity of Christ. They just weren't Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu...they fell into the vague "other" category of those who are descended from Christians, but stopped practicing Christianity for one reason or another along the way. And yet just about everyone celebrates Christmas who doesn't have an obvious reason not to. Everyone goes out and drags home a tree, makes cookies, gives presents, learns the carols. Because it's what they did when they were young, and what their parents did, too.

I can sort of include myself in with those folks. I don't believe in the divinity of Christ, my parents are no longer Christians, and yet every year we celebrate.

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Like many Unitarian Universalists, I think I've had a somewhat awkward relationship with Christianity. It's the recurring conflict of a syncretic religion that wishes to draw upon the good values while at the same time remembering the reason we're somehow different.

I have vivid memories of a friend on the playground in elementary school, who came to us, her group of closest friends, in a panic one day. She had learned in Sunday school that only those who had accepted Christ into their hearts as their Savior would go to heaven, and that those who didn't would be condemned to eternal suffering. The other four of us were a UU, two Jews and a girl in the secular "other" category. Our friend was freaking out and told us we'd have to start reading the Bible and becoming Christians or else she'd go to heaven and we wouldn't. I was about six or seven years old.

As I grew up, I began to explore my religious identity, declaring that I was an atheist at my Coming of Age ceremony when I was 13 (much to my Episcopalian grandmother's shock and disappointment), then experimenting with earth-based religion in high school. Every year at Christmas I'd wonder what it was we were doing anyway. Was it just for a lack of something better? I felt fine putting up a wreath after I learned that the circle can symbolize the return of the sun on the Winter Solstice. But I couldn't deny that Christmas is about Christ (oh, and Santa Claus). At best, I can believe that Christ was a leader, a teacher and a healer--the parts about being a prophet and a martyr and the son of God...well, to me it just never added up.

Around the same time as the playground crisis of faith, a local production of Menotti's television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors came to my school. Something about the story captivated me--the music, the characters, the lyrics, something else. Santa Claus (being omniscient, of course) brought me a cassette of the soundtrack in my stocking that year and I listened to it over and over.

Amahl is about a boy of about ten and his mother living near Bethlehem at the time of the nativity. The mother is a young widow; Amahl walks with a crutch. They are extremely poor. The night visitors are the legendary three kings, following the star on their journey to the child who will be the new Savior. In the times that I've listened to the soundtrack (which I now have on CD) more recently, the part I still find the most moving is a responsive "duet" between Amahl's mother and the three kings wherein they ask if she has seen the child they seek, a child of poor yet somehow noble birth, to whom they are bringing offerings of great riches. She responds,

"Yes, I know a child the color of wheat, the color of dawn.
His eyes are mild, his hands are those of a king, as king he was born.
But no one will bring him incense or gold,
though sick and poor and hungry and cold.
He’s my child, my son, my darling, my own."

"The child we seek holds the seas and the winds on his palm. The child we seek has the moon and the sun at his feet."

"The child I know on his palm holds my heart. The child I know at his feet has my life. He’s my child, my son, my darling, my own, and his name is Amahl."

For some reason, this always brings tears to my eyes. This mother, like all parents, can only believe that her child is the one, just as deserving of praise and prosperity.

In the end, Amahl offers his crutch as a gift for the baby, and he is miraculously healed and able to walk again. I never liked that ending. Well-intentioned as it may have been, it always seemed like another lesson of sacrifice in the name of God.

After all of this, what sense can I possibly make of Christmas? Here is what I have been able to figure out:

Christmas is a time for me to reflect on the best teachings of Christianity, not those of martyrdom and sacrifice, not those of the saved and the unsaved, but those of genuine love for all humankind. In terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Peace on earth and good will toward men.

It's a time to honor and appreciate those we love the most, and those we barely know. It's a time to give to the potential of all to do good. It's a time of hope.

I imagine the hope the people in the nativity story must have felt at the birth of the child they considered their Savior, the one who would change this world for the better. I feel that hope when I look into the face of my stepdaughter, my best friend, every one of my fellow humans. Most importantly, I must feel that hope when I look in the mirror. No one person, divine or mortal, can be looked to as a redeemer. But we can each do our part. We are all capable of great love and great change in our time on this Earth.

Peace on Earth, Joy to the World. Merry Christmas.

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