At Christmas time I always think back not just to Christmases past—gifts and goodies and mental snapshots of grandparents, grandaunts and friends long past—but also to the image of the man around whom this whole show revolves, Jesus. Sometimes it's more about the show than the man, religiously obscured by the tinsel and the cant, but then that is the story of every charismatic teacher since time began, and as long as there are self-satisfied congregations, it will no doubt continue in this vein for a good many lifetimes hence.
Chalk it up to my not having been baptized and the fact that our parents gave us the right to choose our faith (and perhaps to their surprise, though I’m happy to say not horror, we three kids chose an interested distance from all religions), but I saw Jesus as a friend. Indeed, the Jesus depicted in my illustrated Bible books was not just friendly of appearance, he could have been on the cover of GQ. The boy that was me at age seven gazed at this tall, straight-nosed, blond-haired and blue-eyed man in his white and blue robes and sometimes prayed to him not to make me good but to hold me close, as he was holding the children in the pictures. I wanted to sit with him, his arm around me, and tell him about all the fears that crowded into my young life. I remember rising and falling on my swing, in the green shade of our trees, and as I rose toward the blueness visible through the canopy overheard I said to myself, “Jesus, I love you—please love me. Please love me.” Because of course, his story was incredibly moving even to my small boy’s heart. In the days drawing up to Christmas Eve I mesmerized myself with a scene so palpable I cannot believe I actually did not see it—that I was not in fact standing in the nighttime desert outside a village of whitewashed houses which lifted lowly rooflines against a star-studded sky, one star in which was sparkling brighter than the rest. That I did not truly see the figures moving slowly down the road—the expectant mother on the donkey, the father leading the beast along. I saw their shock when the innkeeper turned them away, and I could smell the hay and the faint edge of must and manure in the stable where they took shelter. I saw the animals’ bright glowing eyes and their look of understanding and even pity for the little family, the mother who had to give birth to her baby in their shed. I followed their eyes to the approaching Wise Men and marveled at the gifts they brought. No one thinks, for the moment, of the fate of this child—not just his torture and death on a cross, but of his treatment at the hands of his followers. Like the Buddha, like Laozi, like Mohammed, Jesus is not always well-served by those who profess to live by his precepts. The night of his birth, we cannot see this. We see only the wonder of the birth of this child born to be unique, a boy unlike others, who was here to tell us that it would all get better. As a boy who did not fit in, who felt himself also to be different, I saw Jesus not as my savior but as my ally in this world of hobgoblin consistencies.
Because of all this, I still think the Nativity is one of the most beautiful legends in the world, even as I agree with Swiss theologian Jacob Burckhardt that Jesus “is the most beautiful figure in world history.” As Burckhardt remarked:
"Had I lived when Jesus of Nazareth walked the countryside of Judaea—I should have followed Him and should have allowed pride and arrogance to vanish in love of Him … But eighteen centuries separates our longing from him, and it is only when I am alone and in moments of melancholy longing that a majestic image appears before my soul and consoles me, the image of the Greatest of Men. As God, Christ is a matter of indifference to me—what can one make of Him in the Trinity? But as a man He is the light of my soul…. Call that religion who likes… I make no claim to call it religion."
I’m not a Christian, but to me Christmas is all about the sweet pathos of Jesus the homeless baby who found a refuge at last, about the beauty of Jesus the supremely good man who told his followers to love no matter what. And if that is not enough reason for the season, I don’t know what is.