Monday, December 24, 2007

God With Us - Christmas Eve 2007

It has been several years now since Christmas has held very much of a religious significance for me. Growing up, I have fond memories of Sunday School Christmas programs, where us kids would put on a Christmas play. One year I played the role of one of the wise men, and I remember that a small bottle of Aqua Velva served as my gift of myrrh. A bath robe would suffice when I needed a shepherd outfit. Then there were the Christmas Eve services, which would include the singing of carols and usually the lighting of hand-held candles. I particularly enjoyed attending late-night candlelight services. When I was a kid, and as I grew into my 20’s, Christmas for me was the recognition or celebration of the birth of Jesus in a lowly stall in Bethlehem. It was about the arrival of the Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary. He was sent from Heaven to earth to save humanity from our sins.

As I continued farther into my 20’s, things started to change. I could no longer believe certain previously held viewpoints such as the existence of a literal everlasting hell, the notion of original sin, or that Jesus was the only way to heaven. So, what to do with Christmas? If humanity was not originally sinful, what was the purpose of Jesus? Even more, if there was no eternal damnation for us to be saved from, what did we need Jesus for at all? For a few years, Christmas was mostly about time spent with family. The themes of love and peace still resonated with me, and I still went to Christmas services, but I didn’t know what to make of the story of Jesus.

And now, here we are on Christmas Eve 2007. If I can’t be home with family, perhaps the next best place to be is here at Starbucks with a grandé Christmas blend.

So what does Christmas mean for me this year? Throughout the course of this year I have started to explore again what I believe when it comes to spiritual matters. And what conclusions have I come to? My first response would be to say that I don’t think it is necessary to rush to conclusions. I’m much more comfortable seeing life as a mystery to be experienced rather than a problem to be solved. While I have been learning things and examining what I believe, I am learning to be comfortable with my beliefs not having to be concrete. They are a work in progress, and I think that will always be so as long as I live. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have strongly held beliefs about certain things, I just think we need to be flexible, be content to be on a journey, and be willing to make changes when needed.

What do I believe about Jesus this Christmas Eve? It does not matter to me that I hold firm beliefs about who Jesus was. It does not worry me very much if I believe or don’t believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. It does not matter to me that Jesus was or was not perfect from the time of his birth to the time of his death. In fact, it gives me more comfort to think that Jesus was born of two human parents just like me and that he made mistakes. Maybe he threw things at his siblings as he was growing up, got into the odd fight on the schoolyard, or swore when he stubbed his toe. To me the significance of Jesus is that here was a human being, flesh and blood, who eventually came to experience the divine in such a strong way that he could say, “I and the Father are one,” and “When you’ve seen me, you have seen the Father.”

I love traditional Christmas carols. I particularly like a couple of lines from the last verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

While I don’t necessarily believe that Jesus descended from Heaven or came to make us acceptable to God, I like the thought of God being born in us and abiding in us. I remember in years past being exhorted to “make room for Jesus in our hearts.” The line from “O Come All Ye Faithful” comes to mind: “Let every heart prepare Him room.” I believe that perhaps I can find new meaning in Christmas, and that can include celebrating that in Jesus we see the union of divinity and humanity. However, I think we need to then take the next step of realizing and being glad in the knowledge that God is equally as present in us. To me it is more of a miracle that the divine could dwell inside the hearts, minds, and bodies of fallible, “sinful” human beings, rather than only being present in a perfect human being such as Jesus is often made out to be. I think that when we spend much of our time worshiping Jesus, we miss the forest for the trees. We spend so much time looking at Jesus and trying to emulate his presumed perfection that we miss an equally wonderful miracle. That miracle is that in the midst of our daily lives, in the middle of our complicated, broken lives, the divine is present within us and in everyone around us.

So, this Christmas Eve, I will find a late night church service to attend, I will sing the songs I sang when I was a kid, and hopefully the good news will continue to sink in – that God is indeed with each one of us.