Christmas arrives every year with an argument about its meaning, and who “owns” it. Some denounce the religious sentiment surrounding the holiday season, viewing it as a desperate attempt by an old and dying Christianity to recall an authority it no longer possesses. Artificial “holidays” are manufactured to take the season away from Christians, while popular culture makes a point of treating it as an impartial period of rest before the New Year, a brief holly-jolly loading screen while the calendar reboots. Christians don’t even get to claim it was their holiday first, without eye-rolling and lectures about pagan rituals and the ancient traditions of Celts, Romans, hobbits, or whoever else they supposedly stole December 25th from.
I’m not a member of a congregation, but I’ve been welcomed as a guest in many churches on Christmas Eve, and I don’t recall anyone making demands of me. When something is presented in combination with a demand, it is payment, not a gift. This is a season of giving, not obligation. There’s no reason for anyone who isn’t Christian to feel defensive about it.
Christmas is a time in which believers celebrate the greatest gift the universe was ever given, through their own acts of selfless generosity. It is a time for them to reflect on what their Father wants them to give each other. It’s about His hopes, as much as ours. It is a commemoration of celestial faith in us. You don’t need an ounce of religious faith to appreciate the deeper meaning delightfully echoed in brightly-wrapped packages, placed beneath trees we have transformed into glowing sculptures of the endless night sky. You only need some imagination.
Perhaps you believe the story people tell each other in churches on Christmas Eve is a fairy tale, with only the dimmest basis in historical fact. Fair enough. Belief is also a gift, which no one should be forced to accept. I would, however, invite you to listen carefully to the fable those people are telling each other. Here is a story about divinity choosing to suffer humiliation and pain, beginning a mortal life in the arms of poor folk compelled to sleep among animals… and ending it surrounded by thorns and nails.
Every church commemorates Christmas with a passion play, in which the congregation remembers every detail of how poorly mankind treated the gift it found beneath the Star of Bethlehem. And yet, it’s a happy story, illuminated by a love that never wavered – the love of a child who opened his eyes to see beasts, paupers, and kings kneeling before him, and loved them no more or less than the torturers, executioners, and thieves he looked upon in his final hours.
Imagine looking upon distant galaxies, exploding suns, and all-consuming event horizons, confident that the Creator of these awesome powers adores the eyes which behold them. Imagine a hand that paints the gulfs of space with nebular gas choosing to descend upon one tiny world and become a carpenter. A voice that sings of aeons decided to become a teacher, who worked to illuminate lives measured in decades. A mind that spins atoms into molecules, and weaves them into cells, conceived a plan to redeem the sins of people that would surely respond to the gesture with whips and spears.
You don’t need faith in such an idea to entertain it for a little while. The idea of Christmas can be made welcome in any heart, where it can linger long enough to warm the inner hearth. A little imagination is all you need for fuel, ignited by the spark of a story that tells us every human soul shines as brilliant in Heaven’s eyes as the brightest star. There will be plenty of other nights for cold rationality.
Merry Christmas, everyone!