What Christmas Means to Me

[The following is a repost of my Christmas message for 2006.  Obviously things have changed since then, most notably the fact that I am a good Catholic again.  Nonetheless the post still rings true for me.]

When I read Salon I get the sense that there are a lot of people out there who are rational and agnostic, to say the least, and they feel some sort of spiritual emptiness because they don’t believe in God and don’t raise their children in a religion. These people tend to replace belief in God with the belief in a lot of spiritual mystic hooey. I recently found that, while I still really really don’t believe in God and I don’t feel any spiritual emptiness at all, I did feel that I was closing off a whole literary and philosophical realm that has fed into Western Civilization for a long long time by pooh-poohing religion. I’ve always felt that a lot of the rationalist, secular humanist skeptics out there think science and reason are enough to live on, but there’s a vital moral and humanistic element that you completely miss out on if that’s your only focus. People seem especially to avoid Jesus if they don’t believe in God, but I think that’s mostly trying to set themselves apart from the religious types they feel so superior to. With all that in mind, I sat down and I really thought about what Christmas means to me.
The first thing that never occurred to me before about Jesus is that he seems to be uniquely a middle class prophet. His family owned their own business, their own tools, and his father was descended from King David. and yet by this sort of accident of history he winds up being born in a cow shed among animals, far from his home. Imagine what it would feel like to have your baby in a stable. That made me really feel for Mary and Joseph. It also reminded me greatly of Eddie Albert’s character on Green Acres, who was born in a small Mid-Western town to sophisticated New York socialites on the way to the West Coast, and later decided it was his destiny to become a farmer. I could see how that kind of birth could lead Jesus to be concerned for the lowliest of society when he himself was pretty well-off. It also bears a resemblance to the life of Teddy Roosevelt, who was a wealthy socialite who postured himself as a hard charging tough guy soldier and populist and built his image on a sort of puffed up hard-luck story about having asthma. Not that I think Mary and Joseph were socialites, but neither were they paupers. Plus don’t forget Jesus’ cousin was an influential prophet in his own right, so his family certainly had some standing.
The aspect of the nativity story that I like the most and that no one ever focuses on is the baby-as-metaphor-for-the-potential-of-life. Jesus as a baby is us as babies, always depicted as soft and mild and peaceful, and yet some day he will essentially bring the concept of selflessness and putting yourself in another’s shoes to the world at large, which will inform western civ to no end. Jesus told people to think about what other people feel, and that in turn gave birth to all sorts of great things, like psychology and good literature and the ASPCA and charity in many of its forms and Battlestar Galactica. I contend that none of those things would be quite the same without Jesus, and that, as it sort of says in the song “Oh Holy Night”, the world just sort of chugs along its own disgustingly selfish and self-interested path wherever Jesus’ teachings don’t reach. Make no mistake, human beings are prone to all sorts of despicable behavior, like selling their own children and enslaving others, and Jesus is pretty categorically against all that stuff and gives it a framework in which that opposition can gain some strength. Here in Korea, people used to chain their children up on the edge of town if they couldn’t afford to feed them, and people still throw their kids out the window and jump after them when they face financial hardships, apparently unable or unwilling to imagine their children living on without them. And then there’s the more simple stuff, like walking feelinglessly past people suffering, whether they be the poor or old men who’ve fallen down drunk.
So there is this baby, who really could have been anything, but he chose to become a preacher and then eventually to perhaps claim he was God, but along the way lay out a completely new moral code that still permeates thought in many of the world’s nations and is, to me, undoubtedly a good thing, despite all the crusades and persecution and wars and Sufjan Stevens that come with it.
So I say happy birthday Jesus. Thanks for the soul.

~ by Joshing on December 24, 2008.

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