There is a church down the road from us which has had their Christmas display up since early November. A nativity scene, and they must have only switched on the lights recently, because I saw it lit up for the first time last night as we were out driving. It was elaborate and captivating and a part of me wanted to pull over right then and there, jump out and take a walk through. A larger part of me felt uneasy though, like I would be crossing private property. Like it was somewhere I didn’t quite belong.
Christmas means so many different things to so many different people and while the spirit and magic of Christmas is largely hinged on Santa Claus and the glorious world of make-believe, ultimately – historically – what we are really paying tribute to is the birth of Jesus Christ.
And one day, my kids are going to see a nativity scene and ask me who all those people and goats are. They’re going to learn the words to Silent Night and ask me what it means that Christ our savior is born. They’re going to come home and tell me that their friend Sarah told them all about baby Jesus, and mum, who really is baby Jesus? And the newborn king – is that the same person, mum?
And I will need to have some answers because I am largely in charge of shaping their world, and it’s important to me to be the one who guides them, sewing the religion of my past with life values I believe are worth teaching.
So, the God question came up last night. The one where Joel, unwinding on the couch, was approached by a sudden – “Joel. We need to talk about religion. What are we going to teach Ella about Jesus and God and Christmas?”. And because I know him so well, I can tell you all that I could detect a slight flicker of pain across his weary end-of-the-day face, but I can also tell you all that I am never one to let that get in the way of serious conversation.
To me, Faith and Religion are separate, much like God and Jesus are separate.
I see God everywhere. I catch glimpses of God when I watch my daughter sleep, her chest rising and falling in time with her steady breaths. I catch glimpses when I watch Joel doing something he is really good at, and I marvel at this person I was given to share my life with. I see God in the faces of strangers helping strangers, in the hands of two people holding each other, in the space between people during those times we steady ourselves on one another — moments we remember that more unites us than separates us. I catch glimpses of God when the house is clean and I have a full cup of coffee in my hand. And every time Ella does this one particular laugh. And when I have a blank computer screen and an hour to write.
These moments are those in which we hang suspended in time, where we are lifted from ordinary to a very different realm. This is sacred time, where things glisten holy. Where we are driven to our knees in gratitude. Where we feel blessed, and peaceful, and rich and full. All these moments give me a sense of something beyond myself. Something big and loving and limitless and uniting. And that something? That to me, is God. That Something Else is God. Life is just too beautiful and mysterious for me to believe otherwise.
That, I take part in. That, I have faith in.
However, Jesus as the only way to salvation? As the one and only truth? As the thing you MUST believe or be eternally sentenced?Well, that feels like religion, and I choose faith over religion. My faith is not centered around Jesus, and I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that our salvation hinges on believing not only in his existence, but that he was the son of God, ready to pay for our sins if only we follow a very specific set of rules. What’s more, that everyone who doesn’t believe is wrong. To me, that’s laced with guilt and fear and judgement and I think faith is bigger than that.
So, we’re here. Grappling with the messages we want to teach our children, and the messages we want to discard. Digging into the God we want our children to know, and the religion we want them to be deliberate about accepting. Deciding what it is Christmas means to us, and celebrating accordingly. It’s a challenging but wonderful place. And I don’t have to agree with everything in the Bible for the story of Jesus’ birth to be meaningful.
It’s the fifth day of the advent. We’re collecting pine cones and brewing Christmas tea and talking about Santa and reading The Nutcracker and getting organized for a Christmas party we’re having on Sunday. And yet of course I know that it’s just one side of what I want this holiday to mean to my children. When Ella is old enough, we will delve into the Christ part of Christmas. But right now, we are creating traditions that celebrate love and family and togetherness and giving and peace.
Some might call that Jesus.
“You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing.
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” ~G.K. Chesterton
And that’s my kind of prayer.