On the way to the Metro this week I passed by three homeless people sitting on the sidewalk in front of the stores in the Cleveland Park shopping district with hands outstretched. When I arrived at the Metro, over a dozen fire, police and emergency vehicles were parked around the station. Two firemen emerged with an empty stretcher when the elevator door opened. When asked about what was happening, one of them responded, “Somebody jumped in front of a train.” Someone standing behind me grumbled, “Seems to happen every Christmas season. Someone is all the time jumping in front of a train. Why always at rush hour?”
I have since learned that suicide is not more common over the Christmas season though for many it seems so. (Spring is actually the preferred season for suicides.) What is true, however, is that for a lot of people this is a down time, not a happy one. It is a time of depression, not joy. This is attributed to a number of factors—“Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD “ is often cited since Christmas is close to the shortest day of the year with the least amount of light. SAD affects a lot of people including me. The holiday also tends to exacerbate loneliness and isolation for people who have no family or few friends or places to go and celebrate. I noted this week a large, hand-drawn sign on a McDonalds, “Open All Day Christmas.” For many a Big Mac will be their Christmas dinner. For others Christmas is a time of stress. There is too much activity and too much going on– buying presents, preparing food, just trying to make it through. Christmas is, as they say, a mixed bag.
This is especially so for people brought up in the Christian faith but who no longer feel part of any church or religious group, for whom the story of Christmas no longer resonates, and who themselves may be having a tough time in life—a divorce, loss of a spouse, poor health, broken relationships, a lost job. The list is long.
I count myself among the fortunate. Almost every year, Embry and I have been able to celebrate Christmas with the families of both of our children and being together (this year at the home of our son, Andrew and our daughter-in-law, Karen, in Maplewood, NJ) is both special and spiritual. Watching our four grandchildren ages 8-12 interact is by itself “worth the price of admission.” There is usually a Christmas pageant, carols, and various games and stories. So for us it is a blessing. But still I can’t help thinking about those who are having their Big Mac by themselves on Christmas Day.
And where exactly does Christianity fit into the picture? If there is one religious celebration that is more secular than sacred, this is it. But does a secular Christmas mean necessarily that it is not religious? Can Christmas actually be a sacred day for people who do not go to church or who do not call themselves Christians? Actually, I believe the answer is yes. In my advanced age, more and more I tend to see our experience here on this planet as a shared human experience. We humans are all born and we all die. We have a pretty short time allotted to us to make the best of the hand we have been dealt. We are all trying to make sense out of our lives, why we are here, and what it all means. We do not always admit this, and often these questions lurk under the surface, but I believe asking these questions is part of what it means to be human.
And this is where religion fits in. It is one way we humans try to connect with something mysterious and profound that we experience rarely but enough to let us know that it is real. Religion is what gives us a pathway for affirming that this planet and this vast universe around us are not the result of random chance and without meaning but are here for a purpose. We call this purpose and this force behind it the Divine or more common, “God.” There is, I believe, one Divine, one God. I also believe that no religion has an exclusive connection to the Devine. One destination. Many pathways.
One of these pathways is the Christian faith. What the Christmas story is all about is this: That God is not inaccessible and unreachable but is right under our noses. It is not about making money, being famous, or powerful. The Devine in the Christmas story is expressed in the form of a baby born to a poor, unmarried woman in the humblest of circumstances. It is about sacrificial suffering and about love and living a life for others. Perhaps most of all at the time of the Christmas season, it is about hope in a world where people throw themselves in front of trains, and eat a Big Mac alone on Christmas Day.