When I was a kid my grandparents had this huge nativity set. My memory is probably skewed, but I remember the figures as being about a foot tall. They would crowd on the top of the console TV and call to me from across the house.
“Patricia … come play with us!”
I’d try not to touch them. I’d stare at them and imagine moving them around. But soon, I’d have that big old black wise man by his purple turban and would have him stepping solemnly toward the Christ Child.
Then I’d hear “PATRICIA!” from the kitchen and know I’d been caught before I even realized what I was doing.
Baby Jesus wants to play
I now have my own nativity set. I bought it at Wal-Mart for $14.97 when Megan was a toddler. It’s ceramic.
I brought it home and we unwrapped it together. I told her who everyone was. She stood on a chair and helped me set it up on the sideboard. I kept that chair right there for the weeks leading up to Christmas. “You can play with this whenever you want to,” I told her. “Go ahead. Play.”
We’ve had to glue some of the figures a few times over the years. The bull is missing a horn. But that set remains a high-water mark of Christmas decorating in our house, as Megan, Benjamin and I unwrap it together.
This year, we sat on the kitchen floor and I told them the story of the night that Jesus was born. “This is the story that all those old Christmas songs are about,” I said.
If you’re a regular reader here at all, you know that I’m not religious. I don’t go to church, nor do I take my children. I do, however, talk about God and spirituality in ways that I hope gives my kids the idea that there is Something Greater out there — that there is more to this life than what we see and that we are part of it. We pray at dinner time because I think it’s beautiful to express thanks for having food to nourish us. We pray at bedtime, because I love the “Now I lay me down to sleep …” prayer. Also, I think it’s comforting to my children to go to bed with the idea that angels are watching over them so they will feel safe and protected from all those things that kids worry about in the dark.
A declaration of faith
I avoid getting into specifics about faith and religion here. I think it’s a very personal thing. Also, I have some very Christian friends and relatives who would, no doubt, fear for my soul if I publicly admitted that no, I don’t think I need to be “saved” in order to be taken into the Kingdom of Heaven … or that I have my doubts about Heaven as an actual place.
In my heart, I believe that if there is a God, he loves us the way that I love my children. There is nothing that my children could ever do to make me stop loving them or to make me cast them out. (I suspect Adam Lanza’s mother, wherever she is now, would say the same thing.) I don’t think God would damn me to Hell (if there is one) for not subscribing to a particular flavor of faith.
On the flipside, I have some atheist friends who would lovingly and laughingly point out to me that there is no proof of anything greater than what is in front of our faces. No evidence. You cannot test it, therefore it doesn’t exist.
To them I say that there are many things you cannot prove, test or measure in a controlled environment — love being one of them — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
As for me, this spiritual quest that I’ve been on for many years now has lead me to my own truth. That is that, yes, there is something greater. Sometimes I call this force God, because it’s a familiar, warm term for me. But my God is not a man in a flowy robe on a hill lobbing lightning bolts, but instead is a source of intelligent, creative, divine energy.
So how do I reconcile this energetic Godforce of mine with the story of Christ’s birth? Do I tell my children that the story is a folk tale and that the tradition of Christmas grew up around it? Do I say Christmas is officially a Christian holiday but a lot of people like to celebrate it because it’s fun and it brings families together?
I tell them that Jesus was the Son of God — and that they are also children of God, and so am I, and so is everyone.
I paint the picture of that long-ago night, with the weary travelers going from inn to inn knowing that the child was coming soon. I talk about how tired they must have been. How scared. How relieved they probably were just to have a place to lie down.
I tell them of the wise men who were compelled by a force they didn’t quite understand to travel to a faraway place to pay tribute to this baby.
I tell them that Jesus grew up to be a kind, peaceful and wise man. I tell them that the things he did were so miraculous and loving that even today, people are still talking about them. I tell them he was kind to those people whom others cast out. I tell them that he helped the poor.
And by then, let’s be honest, my kids have had enough of listening to mom and want to get back to sticking holiday window clings to the front windows.
Putting the Christ in Christmas
As for me, I have always found the Christmas story to be full of mystery and magic, even though it’s been many years since I identified with any kind of organized religion.
Every time I hear the song “Oh Holy Night,” in my mind, I’m a shepherd in a field on a dark and cold night.
It’s quiet, except for occasional sheep noises.
Then, all of sudden, something in the air changes. There’s a charge … it’s almost electrical. Even the sheep notice and they fall silent. Then, a light in the sky.
For a moment, the thin membrane between this world and the Divine is breached. Something beautiful comes through. A miracle.
Then we are all washed over with a wave of peace and love. Fulfillment. Contentment.
In my personal spiritual philosophy, I do think Jesus was real. I think he was a divine being — as we all are — but I believe he was particularly advanced. I believe that he was a great teacher and that if you strip away all the extraneous rules and regulations of various organized religions and just pay attention to what Jesus (supposedly) said, he’s a man worth listening to.
So today, Jesus, I say happy birthday to you. It is my joy to honor you with this beautiful holiday, to pause from the business of life for a few moments, to sit silent and still, and to ponder the mysteries of the universe. Thanks for the reminder that the thin membrane between us and the divine is breached all the time, with the ordinary miracles of peace, love, family and joy.
Merry Christmas to those readers who celebrate. Love, peace and joy to all.