It’s also frequently noted that the date of Christmas coincides with the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, and is thus as much a pagan as a Christian observance. The Puritans in both Old and New England felt this way and banned revelry on the holiday.
But this reductionist view misapprehends the wisdom of those who chose to marry the Christian promise with nature’s calendar. Surely it’s appropriately Christian — dare one say orthodox — to celebrate Christ’s birth as reflecting the emergence from darkness into light. That Hanukkah is known as “the Festival of Lights” only brings home the coincidence of the natural with the religious.
This year, we received a lovely holiday card whose message — “We will survive the darkness” — spoke to our hope of emerging from this pandemic. I thought it was a traditionally religious greeting until I noticed the words underneath: “Happy Winter Solstice.”
Many religious people worry, I know, about secularization, and this unease fuels the right-wing media’s “war on Christmas” ridiculousness. I’d argue it’s better to see our awareness of spiritual pluralism as a blessing because it reminds us of the universality of certain longings and calls us to notice the spark of transcendence in everyone.
In his book “The End of Religion,” Dom Aelred Graham, a Benedictine monk who spent his life in dialogue with Buddhists and Hindus, observed: “We are nearer to salvation in realizing that there is a share of the divine in every man and women, including ourselves, than by seeking to be saved by a God who is ‘out there.’ ”
This strikes me as consistent with the insights offered in the quite different Christmas accounts found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
In Luke’s version, the baby in the manger is visited by humble shepherds. In Matthew, there are no shepherds, but there are the wise men guided by a star (yes, light again) who rejoice “with exceeding great joy.”
But warned in a dream that King Herod would slaughter this child — he feared Jesus might indeed be the messiah and thus a political troublemaker — the wise men skip a return trip to Jerusalem to report their finding to the king.
The herders who tended sheep and the wise men certainly came from opposite ends of the privilege structure. The shepherds, as the respected biblical scholar and former Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright once put it in a Christmas sermon, “were near the bottom of the social and financial pile” and thus welcomed a “reign of justice and peace on the earth” as “good news of great joy.”
The wise men brought the child fancy gifts, but their greatest gift was to turn away from the demands of earthly powers to protect the innocent newborn and make possible his revolutionary ministry. The Christmas Gospels, at least as I read them, are a reminder of Graham’s wisdom that we should not let our prejudices or narrow allegiances block us from seeing the “share of the divine” in all of our fellow humans.
We’re not very good at this these days. The angry polemics that divide our country are especially fierce among religious people who draw radically different moral and political imperatives from the same scripture and the same tradition. I can imagine some readers, in good faith, challenging the radical, universalist and egalitarian implications that I think are inescapable in the Christmas story.
But perhaps we might at least acknowledge our shared desire for the light the season brings. It’s a yearning that goes beyond our often angry words. Words may even get in the way.
The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr seemed to think this. He didn’t like going to Christmas services where there was a sermon because he felt that the meaning of the holiday was better conveyed through music. And so many of the great hymns of Christmas focus on light — “turn our darkness into light,” “to the earth it gave great light,” “light and life to all He brings,” “God of God, light of light.”
So when I offer birthday wishes to Jesus, my hope will be that all, believers and nonbelievers alike, might discover the light they seek — and may we remember that finding our way out of the darkness is easier when we know we’re not alone.