On Christmas Eve of 2019 the Howell clan assembled at our daughter’s home in Portland ME: our two children with spouses, our four grandchildren ages 10 to 14, our niece and nephew with spouses, and our two teenage grandnieces. Quite a houseful! Embry and I are truly blessed.
A week before our daughter, Jessica, asked if I would lead a small, family religious service on Christmas Eve. I readily and enthusiastically agreed, realizing that I would be addressing a gathering of the “unchurched”–two Buddhists, two self identified atheists, and the balance, for the most part, “nones.” Sort of typical for our time and era.
The service consisted of a short introduction, a reading of Luke’s gospel of the Christmas story by the grandchildren and grandnieces, a “sermon,” by me, a Christmas prayer, Christmas music lead by our nephew, a professional jazz guitarist, and to my pleasant surprise, an impromptu discussion regarding my Christmas message, which is shown below: “The Meaning of Christmas.”
Christmas is the day that Christians set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This happened over 2000 years ago and is a major feast day for over 2 billion people on the planet Earth who are Christians, more people than in any other religion. We are honoring the occasion tonight in a small, family gathering where for a few moments we think about what is the meaning of Christmas, the religious meaning of Christmas.
It occurs to me that some here might ask the question, do you have to be a Christian or a member of a Christian church to understand, appreciate, or participate in the meaning of Christmas from a spiritual or religious perspective.
My answer is no. Now you know that Embry and I do go to church regularly and in fact Embry is on the governing board of All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington. You may even recall that I went to Union Theological Seminary in NYC and studied to become an Episcopal priest. So you can say that we probably have paid our dues. That maybe we are in a better position to understand the meaning of Christmas more than someone who doesn’t attend church.
There may be some truth to this, but on a deeper level, I think that you do not have to go to church or even have to call yourself a believer to “get it” when it comes to what Christmas is all about and what the meaning of Christmas is. But you do have to pay attention.
My understanding of God and the spiritual aspect of human life expands beyond any one church or any one religion. I believe there is a spiritual and holy dimension to the life all us humans live and experience. This is evident when we ask the question why we are here on this small, obscure planet. When we ask what the meaning and purpose of life is, why are things the way they are, and why aren’t they better. Why does evil exist? Why do we have to die? And what happens after we die? I venture to say that these questions are asked at one time or another by virtually every person. It is our nature. It is the way our brains work. It is what makes us human.
In my thinking and experience, “God” is the word we use to refer to a spiritual force and reality that is by definition beyond human understanding and our ability to describe in language. But I believe it is real.
“Religion” is the word we use to describe our effort as humans to connect to this reality. There is a lot about life that we can’t understand. We live on one small, blue planet which circles around a run-of–the-mill star we call our sun. This star is one of more than 250 billion stars that are in our Milky Way galaxy. This small galaxy is part of more than two trillion galaxies in what we call the universe. But this universe may be only one in what some scientists speculate is actually a multiverse where there are an infinite number of universes. Is there anyone who can say that they figure this out, that they know what it all means?
We do know some things. Scientists tell us we now know that the universe all started with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago and is expanding. But they don’t tell us why. We don’t know the answer to why or what or what it all means. We never will.
But what does this have to do with Christmas? While science can tell us a lot about what, it cannot answer the question why nor does it try to. This is where religion comes in. Having faith and belief that it all makes sense somehow is what religion is all about. Now there are many different religions on the planet earth and about a half dozen or so “major religions,” Christianity being the largest of all, just a tad larger than Islam. However, I am not one to say that Christianity has all the answers or that it is the only way to make sense out of the world as to the meaning of life or, even more important, about our ability to experience on a deeper level what this meaning is, to experience the Divine. I look at the search for meaning as one destination with many pathways. Christianity is one pathway.
And what is that pathway? For me Christmas day is all about a small child being born in humble conditions. A small, innocent child—every child, I believe–represents hope for the future. It is a miracle when you think about it—that life continues and goes on. A new human being has entered the world! The birth of any child I think has a profound religious meaning.
And in the case of Christianity, this child became special because of the life he lived, which many people—those who call themselves Christian—believe provides a roadmap for us humans to follow, and a glimpse of the Divine . This roadmap can be boiled down to one phrase: love your neighbor. That love is the connection between humans and the divine, between humans and God. That is good enough for me, and I think, good news about life on our fragile planet, Earth.
What we do about it and how we live our own lives, of course, is another matter. We know we often fail. But this person we call Jesus also said that God loves us and that there is meaning and purpose in life even if we do not and cannot live up to a life of loving our neighbor. That there is hope. That we are forgiven.
So the story of the birth of Jesus tells us that you do not have to count all the stars in the universe to find meaning and purpose and know that while it is all beyond our understanding, in the end our life on this planet does make sense. In the end it is good.
This is why Christians rejoice at Christmas. But I say it is not just for people who call themselves Christians or believers. It is a message for all humankind, and for that we all can rejoice.