When you are a former believer, Christmas offers a few challenges. I suspect they are very different challenges from the ones experienced by Americans of other faiths—Muslim, Jewish, Hindu—when this massive, inescapable holiday roles around. But they’re enough to inspire quite a few blogs, I’ve noticed, and not a few family arguments.
Every Christmas, I think back to the traditions of my very devout upbringing and try to figure out what to make of them. I could go the Scrooge route and decide the whole thing is baloney, but I have too much respect for the Christian tradition for that. Or I could turn Christmas into a secular celebration, making it all about presents, food, and getting together with family. But the fact is, it’s not a secular holiday: It’s a sacred one. I may no longer believe Christ is the messiah, but I’m not an atheist, and when I think of Christmas, I am immediately reminded of grace.
I’m a writer, a believer in the power of storytelling, and the story of the nativity is inextricably woven into my memory and imagination. My thoughts about the Christmas story aren’t particularly profound. They aren’t rooted in sound theology or exegesis. They aren’t Biblical. They’re based on the way the story was told to me as a child, through Catechism classes, Christmas pageants, manger scenes, and TV Christmas specials. I hope, but can’t guarantee, practicing Christians won’t find them offensive. They are simply what I, a non-Christian, think about when I hear this story, told for centuries and repeated millions of times every year. They are why the story still has meaning to me, and beauty.
First, there is the poverty. I love the idea that, if God were to come to Earth and be a human being for awhile, he would choose to be a poor man. Not a king. Not a rock star. Not even a successful merchant, but a carpenter. I think of this every time I hear so-called “prosperity theologians” yammer about how monetary wealth is bestowed by God as a reward for believing in him. Doesn’t quite jibe with the Christmas story, in my opinion. And it certainly doesn’t jibe with Christ’s message.
Next, there are the animals. Christ was born in a manger, a place where animals live. As everyone knows who’s ever set up a backyard creche, at least one ox, donkey, and lamb were there. They have become so much a part of the story that no nativity scene is complete without them. Let Heaven and nature sing, the song goes. That includes the animals.
The star. Of course, it makes no sense that people from far away could follow a star to a specific manger in a specific small town in a specific country, but that makes no difference. It’s the symbolism that counts, and the symbolism of the Star of Bethlehem—the universal hope for peace and love guiding us like a brilliant light from above—is stunning.
Then there are the wise men, almost always depicted in modern-day imagery as a multiracial trio of African, Asian, and European, which, to my childhood self was a statement of the oneness of all humankind.
And, finally, there is the sky full of heavenly hosts. No, I don’t believe in angels. But the image of a sky full of celestial beings singing in glorious joy left a stamp on my childhood imagination that remains to this day. It has always seemed so full of hope.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...