Let’s Keep Mass in “Christmas”

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The gods love a good festival.  True to our hellenistic pagan past, millions of us around the world are about to celebrate one of Christianity’s most beloved holidays, Christmas, a celebration that has more in common with our Roman and Teutonic heathen heritage than it does with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The winter solstice, when light again overtakes darkness in the lengthening of the days that follow the harvest, was particularly significant in the eyes of our pagan ancestors in the northern hemisphere, and many of those ancestral traditions survive to this day, repurposed, in Christmas.  Evergreen garlands and wreaths adorn our doors and windows, we drag a tree into our home, and light up the Yule log in our hearth, kiss each other under the mistletoe, we exchange gifts, and sing carols about “The Holly and the Ivy,” relicts of our superstitious folklore, harkening back through the ages, borrowed from the Druids, Scandinavians, German barbarians, Romans, and even the Egyptians.  Jesus, as we know, was Jewish.  He’d have a hard time recognizing Christmas, at least as we celebrate it today, and I think, would be bewildered by the assertion that its relevance is related in any way, to His birth.  In fact, He’d probably think most of it was quite absurd, and might just ride into town on the back of a borrowed reindeer to make His point. His church, however, embraced, tolerated, incorporated, and supplanted many of these ancient traditions and rituals, most of them far more ancient than Christianity, replacing the feast of the solstice with its own creation, the feast of the nativity, the mass, or in accordance with the season at least, a new and improved, “Christ-mass,” or Christmas as we’ve merrily come to know it.

Some Christians, perhaps out of ignorance of their history, or because of it, assert that we need to keep “Christ,” in “Christmas,” proclaiming it on bumper stickers, lawn signs, and a barrage of social media posts, urging us to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” followed with defiant, and often ignorant, admonitions that it’s, “Merry Christmas (you heathen!), not, “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings!”  – like there’s a war going on over the right to celebrate, and that somehow, the world is out to get Jesus out of it. Scripture sheds little solstice light on the birth of Christ, but most historians and scholars agree, that it is unlikely to have occurred anywhere near the end of December.  Solstice, or “sun,” celebrations, represented a turning point in the year, and for an agrarian society especially, the significance of the season was firmly fixed in the minds of the people, and was their most important festival. As Christianity became the dominant religious force in much of Europe during the third and fourth centuries, rather than rally against pagan beliefs and custom, which represented the overwhelming consensus at the time, early church leaders simply adopted and made the festive celebration their own.  They put Christ into the solstice, and looked to the liturgy for their feast, substituting the nativity in place of a less supernatural light.  It was a square peg, shoved firmly into a pagan round hole.

The celebration of the last supper seems a bit morbid when you put that in the context of celebrating a child’s birth, but, that’s exactly what we do at mass.  The eucharist, the breaking of the bread, the pouring out of the wine, the communion with the body and blood of Christ, commemorate His death, and His last days with us, and superficially at least, have more in common with Easter than with what we call Christmas.  There was no feast when Jesus was born, and the only meal we Christians celebrate with Him is the Last Supper, just before His death. It’s a rite typically, and historically, exercised in the church.  The term, “Mass,” is derived from it’s latin origin, “missa,” or dismissal, an invocation to go, or leave, as in, “take off, eh,” “you’re dismissed, it’s time to close up shop for another week.” In Christian usage, it gradually took on a deeper meaning, implying a “mission,” one that reflected the missionary nature of the church itself.  If you’re a supporter of that mission, and believe that Jesus is the “light of the world,” maybe it’s time to step out from the shadows of our pagan pasts, and be a little less ignorant.

The liturgy, including readings from scripture, prayer, and communion, are important aspects of worship, and celebrating mass on Christmas does more to put Christ into the season than to keep Him in it – if ever He was.  Modern day Christians might be better poised to lobby to keep the mass in Christmas, than to keep the Christ in the mass this time of year, and they’d have a more sensible argument when it comes to fulfilling their “mission” in the Christ mass.  Instead of trying to get the “nativity” narrative right, cuddle baby Jesus, and chase after the star of Bethlehem, if you really want to keep Christ in Christmas, you’ll have to reach at least into Easter to do it. That is, if you intend on keeping the mass, in “Christmas.”  If you’re a Christian, you might want to remember that your ancestors, too, probably weren’t all that Jewish, and that Paul opened the faith, not only to the Romans, but to all Gentiles.  Are you inviting people into the faith by vain attempts to “defend” Christmas, or Christ “in” the mass? Where’s the communion in that?

I’ve been to many Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, masses, and there are, amazingly, many more Christians at church observing the liturgy during this time of year, than on any other Sunday, Easter being a close contender.  For the most part, it’s a mass like any other – with the notable exception of pagan symbols adorning the pews and altar. Evidently, it’s more important to many Christians to show up for the solstice mass, than the one they can partake in pretty much any week of the year, but the function of the ritual remains the same. Communion with Christ.  You don’t need a Christmas tree to do that, although if you’re having a hard time keeping your own pagan roots in the closet, you can let your hair down a little this time of year.  As for the turf war you’re fighting for Christmas, leave it at home – and go to church.  You might learn something there.

I hope to see you in the pews tonight – for mass. As for me, I’m happy to keep the mass in my Christmas, and I’m not worried about trying to keep Christ in the mass – He’s a part, and central to, every mass I’ve ever celebrated, or ever will.  He’s in my heart, in my life, and as I walk with Him through the holidays, I hope I can still see a trace of Him underneath all that mistletoe while I share in His body and blood, and remember Him.

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Let’s Keep Mass in “Christmas”

Christian Radicalization and the New Crusade

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Regardless of your religious calling, most of us come to our faith through teaching, whether its from our parents, religious teachings in schools and universities, or our Priest, Pastor, Rabbi or Cleric in our place of worship. Whether it’s Sunday school, Wednesday night Bible study, or sermons from the pulpit, the role of leadership in teaching is fundamental to our understanding and expression of our faith.

In the Christian context, the Bible is our text book, and our preachers, pastors and priests are entrusted with the responsibility of guiding our spiritual development through their teaching, interpretations, and practical application of spiritual understanding. Church leaders, of course, also minister to their congregation, are active in our community and generally seek to support it, and we look up to them for guidance, and in fact, give them a license to act with authority (perform marriages, baptize and circumcise our children, bury our dead, etc.).

There are good teachers, and not so good teachers – in every religion. The core message of many religions, including Christianity, can be obscured and corrupted, radicalized, and even militarized. In the west, we cringe at images of Muslim clerics instructing their followers towards violence, hatred and war, and at the manifestation of such teachings in public beheadings, the forced expulsion of non-believers, and in the worst of cases, mass genocides. The Qur’an, the spiritual text book for millions of Muslims, is cited as justification for those who would indulge in radical Islam and the violence that results from its interpretation in the hands of men willing to pervert it to their own aims. In the Christian west, we view these developments, rightly so, as being disturbing and dangerous, and often point to the Qur’an itself as being part of the problem, interpreting it as agressive, hostile, and incompatible with our own beliefs. It’s a bad book, we say, and cannot truly be what God intended for mankind. Taken literally, radical fundamentalist Muslim believers seem to feel that their marching orders are justified by the book, and act accordingly, and with predicable results. Most recently, ISIL (or ISIS if you prefer) have taken Islamic fundamentalism to new extremes, as we see now regularly on the news, and we’re confronted with the resulting atrocities that have followed in its wake – the power of perverting a religion’s core message by and through its teachers and leadership, profoundly expressed. Whatever the motives, political, economic, societal, or more human ones like revenge, justice or plain madness, when a religion is allowed to be hijacked by those who would corrupt its teachings, good things never seem to happen as a result.

Christianity is not immune from these dangers. From many pulpits, particularly American ones, we’re hearing a radicalized form of the faith being promulgated as well. Like many radicalized Muslims, these radicalized Christians are just as determined and head strong in their own beliefs, justified by their Bible, at least as delivered to them by their pastoral leaders. While they may not, as of yet, be taking up bayonets and rocket launchers in the training camps of Jesus’ army, their apocalyptic message has gotten louder with the beating of the drums of war, and some of them seem actually quite excited with the prospect of armageddon occurring during their own lifetime – a prospect made strikingly real by the fact that we now have the ability to make it happen – in less than 15 minutes no less. The fact that they’re wearing Jesus T-shirts and blue jeans makes them no less dangerous than their Muslim counterparts once radicalized. A short review of Christian history might remind many of us that we too, are capable of our own atrocities in the name of our religion (the Crusades, colonialism and the extermination of native American societies, implication in the Holocaust, and within the faith itself, the Inquisitions being examples that come to mind).

For the most part, mainstream Christianity, or whats left of it, and American society in general, tend to view religion as a matter separate from state, from politics, and view the faith is being somewhat benign. Unless we’re a church goer ourselves, we really don’t care too much about what’s happening in the pews down the street at the local worship centre – at least not until some cult is exposed, or a prominent religious figure is publicly humiliated on television for corruption, infidelity or otherwise scandalous behaviour. Society’s license on the clergy isn’t necessarily monitored by oversight, and matters of the church are pretty much settled by way of self regulation, with few exceptions. If say, a church was teaching its congregation that their following should prepare for an imminent apocalyptic war, provide money and resources to a foreign state to support it as an ally in the struggle, and engage in a domestic policy of political intervention to deny segments of its society rights and privileges to support the effort, who are we to argue? After all, we’re all Christians, aren’t we?

Now, more than ever before, our spiritual faith, Muslim and Christian alike, comes with a duty, a self responsibility, to examine our own doctrine and orthodoxy with regard to our personal faith, regardless of what’s being delivered to us from the pulpit, the media or charismatic evangelism. Scripture needs to be interpreted through the lens of intelligence as much as through the spirit, or it can become a very dangerous device indeed, and for that, we alone as believers have the responsibility. In the middle east, we see sons and daughters, even children, being lead off to war by the zealous provocations of radicalized clerics and Imams willing to distort, pervert, and use religious doctrine and scripture as their means of encouragement and coercion. The Christian church in America may be no less vulnerable at the hands of powerful influencers who too, have access to media, money, and military might.

Christians, in particular, in western society, have a duty, regardless of their particular denomination, to ensure such radicalization of the faith does not take root amongst our own brothers and sisters, whether in our churches, schools, or society at large. We have a duty to work for peace, and to be knowledgeable not just in our respective orthodoxies, but also in our history and common heritage. Most of all, we have a duty to engage our God on a personal level, and to not be lead astray from that relationship with Him by false teachings, misinterpretations of the Bible, political agendas that have usurped the faith, or the corruption of those who would distort the core elements and essence of the foundations of our faith. There is too much at stake, personally, and collectively, to simply acquiesce to charismatic teachers, trite “the Bible says so” interpretations, and reactive outrage at perceived attacks on our religion.

I don’t know about you, but if we’re going to go to war for Jesus, or Mohammed, or God himself, personally, I’d like to be sure before I commend another person’s soul to the almighty. Open your Bibles, read it for yourself, ask your pastors and priests and challenge them, but above all else, especially in these difficult times, approach religion with intelligence. If not for the sake of the world, for the sake of your soul. Know who your teachers are – whether its your cleric, rabbi or pastor, and don’t just take their word or interpretation for what your faith has to say about doctrine – think about what you’re taught, and seek out your own meaning and experience. God, in any religion, doesn’t want puppets or zombies, but thinking, intelligent and creative beings – in His own image. Understand your religion, intimately, how it evolved, its role in the modern world, how its vulnerable, and the conflicts that arise from within it. This, I challenge you to do.

You may discover inconsistencies within your faith, and your beliefs may be challenged, and some of us love our own thinking so much that entertaining something other than what we’ve convinced ourselves to be true can seem very threatening. Accepting the faith doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take what you think you know, or what someone else knows, on faith. Find your God on your own knees. There has never been a better time in history to make that journey, and the wealth of the world’s languages, books, art and music are at your fingertips. There has never been a time in history when the need to get God right has been more crucial, or less perilous. Martyrdom of ideas, we may find, may be a wiser path to peace before martyrdom of our sons and daughters makes that option impossible.

There is nothing enlightened about blind faith.

Christian Radicalization and the New Crusade

Christian Evolution by Means of Unnatural Selection

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I am a Christian, a follower of Christ and his teachings, and subscribe to the sometimes radical idea that love, truth, fairness, non-violence and forgiveness are more effective tools in affecting social change in the world – in service to what some Christians refer to, as the Kingdom of God. I’m also a rational, reasonable, educated, and relatively intelligent man, with what some conservative believers might call “doubt,” that I prefer to characterize as a healthy and robust measure of inquiry and skepticism. I believe in Evolution, and its foundations in science, and have never considered that belief to be contradictory to my spiritual faith – and here’s why.

Most religious objections I hear from my fellow Christians to Evolution seem to revolve around their interpretation of an ancient Hebrew text still found in most of our Bibles, in the Old Testament, as the Book of Genesis (often punctuated by the absurdity that we didn’t come from monkeys). In it, creation is described in some detail, including an account of the creation of man, animals, and of course, the Earth itself. Most scholars agree that our earliest texts for Genesis seem to have been written in the 5th or 6th centuries BCE, during the time of the Babylonian exile. Even if you maintain that the account was provided to us during the time of Moses himself, who lived by most accounts around the time between 1391-1271 BCE, the earliest the story could have been composed, it pales in comparison to far more ancient evidence available to us that speaks to creation (and its evolution) – found not in scrolls or scripture, but in ourselves, written in God’s second language, nature. The entire Bible contains 3,566,480 letters. Evidence from the fossil record, from the DNA contained in every one of our living cells (shared with every other living thing) tells a different story. Human DNA, which is by no means the most complex, contains over three billion letters – that’s 3,000,000,000,000. I suspect that if God really didn’t want you to know about it, He probably wouldn’t have written the message on every single cell in your body. And yes, Evolution contradicts, entirely, what Genesis says to us, in the absence of crude attempts to interpret Genesis as a parable mirroring scientific discovery.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that Moses, or any ancient living over 3,000 years ago, got it wrong, despite the intuitive sequence used by the author that at least recognized that stars preceded planets in the over all scheme of development. Even Genesis itself does not maintain that all of creation happened simultaneously, but rather, over a period of time (albeit quite dramatically condensed) and in stages. I’m pretty sure Jesus read, or at least knew, of the story Himself, but frankly, He seems to me to have had more important priorities on His mind – most of them far more dangerous and seditious, like revolution and social change, paradigm shifts advocating non-violence and love as alternatives to brute force and violence, inclusive and fair distribution of both societal and spiritual rights and privileges, and salvation from sin, paramount among them. Debating creation and Evolution simply didn’t seem to be a part of His agenda, not least by virtue of the fact that Darwin hadn’t discerned it yet – at least that’s not how I read my New Testament account of Him.

Moses got it wrong. So what? That has nothing to do with Jesus’ message, or salvation for that matter. I’m fine with it, perfectly comfortable actually, and I don’t view an alternative creation account as being particularly threatening to my faith. If anything, Evolution, and its implications, seem to suggest to me, personally, that God is far “bigger” than Moses or any of the patriarchs could have ever imagined. After all, we were just starting to get acquainted with Yahweh back then. I’m cool with that. Really.

As a Christian, I think a lot of us waste a lot of time resisting this uncomfortable nemesis of Evolution we’ve inherited from science – everything from worrying about whether it’s being taught in our schools, to building Disney like theme parks displaying absurdities that depict humans walking with dinosaurs in a desperate attempt to hold onto a myth, and demonstrate the degree to which our ignorance is prepared to support it and reconcile contrary evidence within it. That’s not what my Jesus is, or ever was, about – at all. He was a champion of truth, and an agent provacateur who inspired us to think outside of the box, and to question authority. Personally, I think He’d be thrilled with Evolution, and quite possibly would find an even richer backdrop for His famous parables within it. He reminded us, through His sacrifice, that we are all connected to God. Evolution reminds us that we are all connected to each other, and all living things.

Evolution is not some trick of the devil, it’s not a blasphemy, and it’s not some scientific heretical attack on Christian beliefs, values, or doctrine. It shouldn’t be treated as a form of intellectual leprosy within our churches either. As Christians, we’re called into the light, of both wisdom and knowledge, spiritually and otherwise, and to simply ignore God’s message as expressed through the heavens, and life itself, is nothing short of an insult to the beauty and wonder of it all. If that scares you while you’re sitting in the pew, then I would suggest that you re-examine your faith – because if it doesn’t support truth, it may not be as close to God as you think.

I know I’m not going to get a lot of “Amens!” from my brothers and sisters on this one, and frankly, that’s ok. I love you anyway. I do hope however, that you’ll understand that not every Evolutionist is the anti-Christ trying to tear down your church. If you’re really afraid that you might be descended from a monkey, stop thinking like one, and find out for yourself. I promise you, you won’t lose your soul.

Christian Evolution by Means of Unnatural Selection

The Gospel According to Darwin

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From time to time, I have the pleasure of engaging in conversation with my Christian brothers and sisters on the subject of evolution. “On the Origin of Species” hasn’t made it into canonical scripture (much to Darwin’s dismay I would imagine), but about as many Christians who have read their Bibles (and understand its origin) seems to be about the same as the faithful’s readership with regard to the good news of Darwin – not very many.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a Christian that went something like this. It started off with a discussion centred on contradictions in the Bible, and very quickly narrowed towards a debate on whether or not God really did create man (in this case, Adam – which by the way, wasn’t really the guy’s name, but rather turns out to mean, figuratively, “made from the red,” in Hebrew – as in mud, or clay – no doubt an attempt by God to employ the pun as one of his original literary devices), as told in the Genesis account, and that if you believed that, reconciling yourself to the assertion that man descended somehow from monkeys obviously couldn’t be true. Well, Darwin didn’t really claim that man evolved directly from monkeys, or any other animal for that matter, but that over time, original life (which, much to our disappointment, despite God’s obvious favouritism, doesn’t appear, by all accounts, likely to be us) adapted to the environment and changed in a process he called natural selection. It’s the same unnatural process we humans used to “evolve” toy poodles from the wild wolf (some may be surprised to learn that Noah didn’t include the family Shih Tzu in his ark’s cargo manifest), the primary difference being that the selection process in nature arises from a species ability to change, or evolve, in order to adapt and survive in the environment in which it lives, and occurs over a much longer expanse of time through many successive generations. (To my scientific friends, I apologize now for the pitifully presented, but pithy, attempt to oversimplify the concept – and to my canine friend who truly does see me as God, I’m sorry to burst your bubble pup). The objection to this idea is sometimes based on the authority of the Bible, and how it addresses the question of origin of the species. After all, if it truly IS the inspired word of God, the creator Himself, it’s got to have the story right. Right?

Evolutionists (usually pronounced with an inflective sneer), as proponents of Darwin’s explanation have come to be called, understandably find themselves frustrated – their gospel being just as misunderstood in many cases as those of their brothers of the faith. Who wants to argue with God, after all? If the Bible is the unchanging, unalterable and authoritative divine source many Christians believe it is (and sometimes desperately hope to be so, unless on occasion it happens to inconveniently run counter to one’s desired interpretation), it should be the last word on the matter (or the first, depending on how you look at it), right?

Scientific evidence, observation, experiment, analysis, and knowledge aside, and assuming that Darwin’s gospel is nothing more than a trick of the devil in disguise (those funny monkeys), if you’re going to rely on Biblical authority to denounce the theory, you’d think that the concept of an evolving, adaptive, changing process capable of producing distinct species shouldn’t apply to it either. The fact is that what we call our Bible, is a modern day species of scripture that has indeed undergone an evolutionary process. It’s changed over time, undergone mutations, adapted to society, knowledge, language and the medium of its existence and preservation. It’s transformed itself from single celled scriptures to complex arrangements, and it’s diversified and reproduced generations of sophisticated, complex systems of theology that we have today. It’s left behind its own fossil trail. Compared to our “modern” Bible species, its ancient ancestors appear primitive, almost as though they could have been written by monkeys – in its earliest forms, fragile scribbles of archaic Greek written on animal skins or papyrus, the Bible wasn’t available with evolved features like chapters, verses, and even punctuation, noticeably absent from its structure. The story has changed as well, in small incremental ways, and sometimes in dramatic and far more significant ways – under selective pressures ranging from the skill of a scribe’s hand to decisions made by more intentional human interventions that radically shaped the canon we bring to church with us on Sundays in the modern age, arriving not like it says we humans did, instantly from the dust of the earth, but over time, and many, many changes. The Bible, though it may well be the inspired Word, is itself, a product of an evolutionary process. If you’re still in doubt, try reading your grandmother’s King James version of the book, or better yet, the Latin edition of the Codex Vaticanus if you prefer a more continental flavour.

I hear Christians, and sometimes Pastors and preachers, insisting, and using, the Bible as a ready made hand me down that came to us directly by way of God’s Amazon account – sort of like how God downloaded the Ten Commandments directly to Moses’ tablet at the time (which no doubt worked as well as my iPad). The fact is that what we know and love as our Bible was constructed, painfully, over centuries, from an assortment of fragments, scattered across much of the European and Asian continent, which had to be stitched together, translated, and copied by hand in cold dark monasteries in secluded parts of remote Ireland when the Vikings weren’t pillaging, middle eastern caves and Roman sewers. During much of the time they were written, having a copy laying around on your coffee table might have landed you a swift execution for treason. The real miracle is that any of it survived to the modern day at all. It’s a miracle shared with mankind, and the species we call human.

Regardless of your faith, or what you believe, or don’t, I encourage you to seek out the reasons for what you believe, to understand the lens that you use to magnify and illuminate your beliefs, the context in which they evolved, and most importantly, to enjoy and develop a passion for inquiry and the true freedom of faith that arises from the truth.

It will set you free.

The Gospel According to Darwin

Silent Night. Holy Night.

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The holidays are touted as a time to be “merry,” and to be of good cheer, urging us all towards “peace, and goodwill,” bolstered by a bewildering array of lights, reindeer, ominously large inflatable snowmen, long white bearded jolly Santa Claus’ in every mall and on every street corner, with bells ringing and jingling as we go dashing through the snow, with trees strapped to the roof of our modern day four wheel drive sleighs. There’s plenty of Christmas cheer, and for many, it’s an exciting, wonderful time of celebration, eggnog, turkey dinners, presents, and visits with loved ones and family. It can also be a time of stress, grief, frustration, and loneliness for many, especially when our modern day expectations about the holidays seem to pale in comparison to the reality of what we’re experiencing, and what’s being sold to us as, “Christmas,” and its many and varied traditions and customs.

When I was a child, like many of my contemporaries, I couldn’t wait for Christmas. Mom would let us open a single gift on Christmas Eve, after we got home from midnight mass, before chiding us that if we didn’t go to sleep, Santa and his sleigh wouldn’t be able to pull off the magical deliverance that many children my age had come to anticipate. For good measure, we made sure that cookies and milk were set out to entice and thank Santa, and to ensure that a forensic trail remained after his visit, before we went to bed, desperate to surrender to sleep. Half eaten cookies were, of course, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was the real deal. In the morning, our faith was affirmed with a bewildering array of colourful packages adorned with ribbons and bows stacked high liked a mountain beneath a bright and shining tree, each gift bearing the words, “From Santa,” handwritten in his magical script on gift tags, confirming his covenant with all children that he had, indeed, surely known when we were sleeping, and when we were awake, and whether we had been bad or good, naughty, or nice. His second coming was our salvation, at least on that morning, as he swooped down from the cold starry heavens on his reindeer guided chariot to redeem the hopes and dreams of children everywhere. We’d seen him before, touched him, had our photos taken with him, sat on his lap, tugged at his beard (which in adult retrospect, bears a striking resemblance to God as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel if you dress it up with a jolly red suit and hat in place of His heavenly nightgown – blessed are those who don’t tug at the whiskers, and yet believe). We whispered our desires into his ear as he put his arm around us, and heard his jolly laughter bellow from aloft on his throne, seated there in his polar realm, a child’s other-worldly heaven perched high on top of the world, the very seat of the workshop of creation for all that was good – most especially, toys! His grace, and kindness, had redeemed us, once more.

All evidence to the contrary, whether it was based on our own suspicions, or the insane and dangerous heresies of “non-believers,” traces of recycled gift wrap, exhausted parents still sleeping on the couch with tape stuck to their fingers, or the absence of sleigh tracks on the roof, we believed, in Santa, and in Christmas, and nothing could shake that belief after the sight of those presents, each one containing a granted wish, an answered prayer, delivered in our names, right to our home – it had all confirmed everything we already knew to be true, everything we knew that must be true. Santa, was real! Moreover, we had a personal relationship with him, he knew each of us by name, and we were in his book – on his list. Just as the sacred scriptures contained in the book of, “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” or the sacred song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” prophetically foretold, he had heard our whispered prayers while we jiggled on his knee, read our sanctified and plaintive letters, and he loved us, really loved us – enough to travel around the world, in one single night, despite our misbehaving antics and tantrums, to bring us, and the world, gifts, undeserved gifts, and the great joy and excitement that came with them. Our long suffering, trying desperately to be good, our sacrifices with early bedtimes and behaving, was over – at least this morning. We were good, or at least, managed to make that list, somehow, despite the odds, and overlooked misdeeds, or at least, the undiscovered culpatory evidence of them, by grace or by luck, hadn’t resulted in a lump of coal. It was a miracle, of epic proportions, assisted not by angels, but by flying reindeer, an army of elves, a magical sleigh, and the jolly love of a polar saint who adored all children – a miracle repeated, every year, for as long as we were children, witnessed in our imaginations and hearts, and corroborated by an overwhelming abundance of, albeit circumstantial, evidence (not the least of which being first hand accounts and testimonies of the kids next door) which none of us were prepared to deny, lest the magic ceased with the blasphemy of suspicion – warranted or not. After all, with all the ritual, the amazing accounts, the ancient origins, how could millions of “believers,” children and adults alike, possibly be wrong? Deception on such a universal scale, surely, could not be possible. How could you possibly NOT believe in Santa? Surely, such a suggestion is the Grinch’s work, incarnate in the likes of Scrooge, the Bumble, Winter Warlock and his other evil anti-Santa henchmen.

Eventually of course, in time, we came to learn of the well meaning deceptions that accompanied the “miracle,” and with age, came wisdom, and with wisdom, came an understanding of the metaphor, the myth, and its deeper and more profound meanings, both spiritually and morally. Santa was an invitation, an invitation to believe in something beyond the myth, and the real gift under the tree all those years wasn’t the new train set, barbie doll, or bike, it was the belief and faith in the act of giving, and receiving, love, and the joy that comes from it. It was also an exercise in faith, and ultimately, skepticism, a healthy doubt (and a good tug of the beard), that would arise from the metaphor itself, that lead, ultimately, to a deeper truth, about faith, about kindness, and about what it really means to “believe.” The magic wasn’t in the man. He did not exist, at least not as we ever knew him. The magic was in the myth, and in our faith in it. It was, in the end, a message about the power of humility, of vulnerability. We survived the apocalyptic revelation that Santa and our world view, as children, were fabrications, and seeing the deeper meaning, we at least vowed not to usurp the myth held dear in the hearts and minds of the young, until they too, were, “ready” to mature and grow beyond it, or had come to that conclusion of their own accord.

As many of you can attest to if you’re my age, being a parent at Christmas can be exhausting. When I foster parented my two amazing nephews during a part of their childhood, my wife and I would spend hours buying presents, hiding gifts under the bed or in closets to conceal the ruse, spent hours wrapping them, and decorating the house, between cooking turkeys and ham, and stuffing and hanging stockings with care, and so, by Christmas morning, we were spent. Only the thrill of watching these wonderful children open their gifts, marked with tags proclaiming, “From Santa,” and the excitement they had in validating their beliefs, kept us going through the day, lifting our own spirits along the way with the joy we shared in seeing them happy. It’s a sweet memory, and one that I know many parents, and their children share. We were willing accomplices, perpetrators of the great myth, and on that day, even we too, wanted to believe, if not in Santa, in the spirit of him, and in Christmas. We’d evangelized him, and knowingly perpetrated a fraud on the children for the sake of the myth, justified, out of love and a desire for their happiness, knowing full well, that in time, the deceit could not be sustained. What was “true,” didn’t matter as much as the deeper truths that were shared by the execution of the deed. The means, justified the end, at least this one. We were proud of ourselves, and accepted the mission repeatedly, one that was sanctioned by our own traditions, a crusade of kindness, handed down to us from our ancestors – disciples of the great saint himself, Santa. Santa was dead, an invention who lived only in our delightfully clever myth, but we were going to keep him alive, and resurrect him, at least for another year.

I’ve spent many Christmas holidays since, nearly half a century’s worth now, some alone, some quiet, some with friends and family, and each year, part of that tradition remains, even in the darkest of places, or in the darkest of times. I know what it’s like to be alone on Christmas morning, to suffer and grieve during what was supposed to be a time of celebration and happiness, to be a prisoner of fear, anxious, and I’ve known what it’s like to work through the holidays, tired and unappreciated, or to be separated from family and loved ones, and to have prayers go unanswered, to be shut out, abandoned by friends and family – forgotten. I’ve felt the desolation of Christmas, the horrible feeling that it’s left you behind, uncounted, unloved, the “humbug” of expectations crashing to the ground into a pile of tinsel and cold ashes. I’ve also seen disillusionment with the holiday creep into the lives of other people I know – turning otherwise civil and sane, respectable people, into childish monsters, with flared tempers, cursing Christmas greetings under their breath, seething with contempt, wrestling with the pain, anger, and the hurt of feeling unappreciated, disenfranchised, or harbouring outright petty and jealous misgivings toward their fellow man and woman, brought raw to the surface, during what to some, is a very lonely and troublesome holiday. They’d just as soon shove you under a shopping cart if you get in their way, or slam a door in your face if you wished them holiday cheer, let alone offer you the charity of decent manners or courtesy. The comfort and expectation we knew in Christmas as children, seems like a distant far off dream, a fantasy, its meaning no longer relevant. For many, the myth has failed.

One particular Christmas in our home, when I was a teenager, brought the humbug out in mom. She’d spent all evening, and much of the morning, putting together the perfect Christmas Day dinner – turkey, squash, stuffing, you name it, it was on the stove. The table was set for royalty, candles lit, the tree glimmered with lights, and Christmas music played softly on the record player (for those of you too young to know what this is, it’s like an iPod, but much heavier), and as she toiled, sweating from the heat of the oven, the rest of us relaxed and mused over our gifts. The peaceful illusion soon came to an abrupt halt, as the turkey, pan and all, crashed to the floor in the kitchen. The dogs were instantly aware of their opportunity, and bounded towards the pantry. The doors slammed shut, just in time, and behind them, was mom, on her knees, scraping up the remains of her prized bird from the kitchen floor. Somehow, she managed to clean off the fowl mess, resurrect at least the semblance of a mangled turkey from what remained, and in her grace, brought out the meal as we all sat down at the table to give thanks.

My grandmother was with us that Christmas day, and she sat at the head of the table, and led us in grace. After the blessing, there was a moment of silence, broken by her observation that went something like, “Oh my, what happened to the bird!?” Nana was a stoic, stiff upper lipped woman, very British, and she wasn’t good at hiding her disdain or criticism. It was the voice of a mother telling her daughter that she hadn’t measured up, nose raised in the air, a scowl looking down from above the rim of her bifocal glasses. Mom was just as stubborn, and in her frustration, she did the only thing any respectable cook could do under the circumstances. She rose slowly from her chair, walked around the table, opened the door to the patio, hoisted the Christmas tree up over her head, ornaments and all, swung it around, and tossed it outside into the yard. She then calmly closed the door behind the tree, turned to us, as our jaws dropped, eyes wide in shock and awe, and said calmly, “Christmas, is now over.” She turned and walked away, went to her bedroom, and closed the door.

We spent the rest of that Christmas Day contemplating every possible meaning of the word, “silent.”

The stress and expectations that many of us have come to acknowledge surrounding our experience of Christmas hasn’t seemed to abate with time. People still go a little crazy, trying to impress, out spend, have the brightest lights or the most perfect table setting, and seem to get lost in the sea of consumerism or devotional fervour that seems to fuel many of our ideas of what a perfect Christmas should be. Our “silent” Christmas, although by many “standards,” a disaster, was really one of the best gifts we ever got. It was in the silent aftermath, in that humility, in that desolation, that the real meaning of Christmas shone through. It wasn’t about the turkey, or the gifts, the tree, or even the company. It was about remembering the silence and humility, the utter aloneness, rejection, and stark beginnings, that God chose to come into this world with. It was about the Silent Night. The Holy Night. It was about a young family, desperate to find shelter, away from home, away from family, in utter poverty, in the dark of night, cold, obscure, unknown – seeking a way to bring love into the world. Scriptures don’t tell us much about the real events that surrounded the first “Noel,” and over time, we’ve created our own myths around what the ancients bequeathed to us in their conflicting accounts, including, not surprisingly, even the date ascribed to the event itself. I think we can be pretty certain however, that there were no turkey dinners, no Christmas trees adorned with lights and ornaments, no eggnog, and no Santa Claus or carollers singing off in the distance. It was an obscure birth, and a very humble one. It was in the silence of that night, in that humility, in that obscurity, in a mangled mess of a world with bleak expectations, that God’s love, and ultimately, His forgiveness, became our greatest gifts.

This Christmas, whether you’re with friends and family celebrating, or alone, working, or enjoying good cheer, I wish you a very Merry Christmas, but more, I wish you a moment of silence, and the peace of knowing, that your belief, your faith, that your whispered prayers, answered or not, are more precious gifts than those you’ll find under your tree. To unwrap them, and the magic they hold beyond the myths, you need only be still, be silent, and with a humble heart, listen, as love draws near you in that silent, Holy night of our humble walk in faith with Him. In that silence, I hope you find something that you, too, can believe in.

Silent Night. Holy Night.