Note to reader: “Nones” are those who say they do not have a church or religious affiliation, a term which applies to lot of GenXers and Millennials including the Howell children and grandchildren. Last Christmas, the Christmas of 2019, my daughter, Jessica, asked me to deliver a “Christmas message” to the 16 of us gathered in her cozy, Maine home after our Christmas dinner—our two children and their spouses, our four grandchildren, all now teenagers or close to it, and our niece and nephew and their families , two dogs, a cat and a pet snake. This is what I came up with (expanded and edited for 2020):
Now I know that what many of us cherish most about Christmas is gathering together with family and loved ones, exchanging gifts, watching gleeful children and grandchildren when they see the presents from Santa, enjoying a Christmas feast, singing Christmas carols, and just hanging out around a warm fire at a time when the days are cold and dark but just starting to get longer again.
We often forget, however, that Christmas is also a holy day. 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 two billion people on the planet Earth who are Christians. We are honoring the occasion tonight with a small family gathering where for a few moments we think about what the meaning of Christmas is, that is, 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.
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 religious 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 on a deeper level than a family gathering.
I believe there is a spiritual and holy dimension to the life all of us humans experience. This is evident when we ask the question why are we here on this small, obscure planet. When we ask what is the meaning and purpose of life, why are things the way they are, and why aren’t they better. Why do we have to die? And what happens after we die? Why is there evil in the world? 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, religion is the term we use to describe the search for answers that are beyond our rational understanding as mere humans. We can’t fathom why we live in a universe where our small, blue planet circling around a run-of-the mill star is a mere speck in a galaxy of over 400 billion stars, most with their own solar systems and planets. And according to NASA estimates, there may be as many as two trillion galaxies in the universe! In fact, some astronomers now speculate that our universe may be part of a multiverse where there are an infinite number of universes. Scientists tell us that it all started with the Big Bang around 14 billion years ago and is expanding. But they don’t tell us why. We humans don’t have the scientific answer to the why of the Big Bang. We never will.
But what does this have to do with the religious meaning of 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 life makes sense somehow–in some mysterious way “that passes all understanding” –is the foundation of religious belief. Now there are many different religions on the planet Earth and about a half dozen or so major religions, Christianity being the largest. 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 or the meaning of life, or even more important, about the ability to experience the Divine. I look at the search for meaning as having one destination with many pathways. Christianity is one pathway.
And what is that pathway? The Christian story begins with a baby born in humble conditions, an infant who is a symbol of hope. This child became special because of the life he lived, which many people believe provides a road map for us humans to follow and provides a clue as to the meaning of life. This person was a healer and a charismatic prophet who called for a new order where the poor, not the rich, would experience the kingdom of God. He called for justice and peace on Earth. To his followers he embodied the Divine.
He also was executed on a cross. But early Christians believed that in a strange and mystical way, after his death Jesus continued to live. They called this the “Resurrection” –which Christians celebrate on Easter. For Christians the Resurrection of Jesus means that love ultimately prevails, that God is love, that there is meaning and purpose to life, and that we should commit ourselves to work for peace, justice and the end of suffering. Through faith in Jesus as the Christ or the “son” of God, Christians also believe there is a pathway to experiencing the Divine.
The most important message of Christmas for me can be boiled down to one word: hope. Just as the birth of every child is a manifestation of hope by the baby’s parents, the birth of Jesus is a manifestation of hope for a better world, a world where hate and violence are replaced by love and acceptance and where justice prevails.
So the meaning of Christmas is that you do not have to count all the stars in the universe to find its meaning and purpose. That while the vastness of our universe remains a mystery beyond human understanding and while suffering in this world is very real, the religious meaning of Christmas provides hope that our life on our small planet does make sense, that our lives have value and that ultimately goodness will win over evil–and that we are called to help make that happen.
This I believe is the good news of Christmas. But I also think this good news is not just for people who call themselves Christians or believers. It is a universal message for everyone including those who consider themselves one of the “Nones.”
4 thoughts on “The Meaning of Christmas for “Nones.””
Just because you can ‘formulate’ a question doesn’t mean it either makes sense or has an answer. ‘What is the meaning of life’ makes sense as a sentence, but might not have an objective answer. The other questions you pose — why are things the way they are, and why aren’t they better. Why do we have to die? And what happens after we die? — have been addressed and, in my opinion, answered by the greatest scientific theory of all time – biological evolution: 1) life forms reproduce imperfectly, 2) some mutations adapt to the environment better than others, 3) the best adapters live longer than others and dominate until either a more adapted species or more hostile environment takes over, and 4) we’re all carbon-based creatures, thereby governed by growth, homeostasis and death. As to why things aren’t better and why there is there evil in the world? Life forms are subject to variations in traits, both physical, like skin color, and mental, like personality. The statistical spread of physiological and psychological behavior gets you everyone from altruist to psychopath; my guess is that biology is at the bottom of most of these behaviors. (Google ‘behavioral genetics’)
Yuval Harari suggests the what separates Homo sapiens from all other species is our ability to share stories. And the best stories win. They need not (and usually aren’t) true in any objective sense; objective meaning tangibly real, like a banana. For this reason, I, one of the ‘Nones,’ share my story with your audience. Just food for thought. Have a happy holiday. Irwin
Great comments and great story, Irwin. It turns out that you and I are actually not all that far apart as to our “theology.” That said the “why” of it all is a question that still gets asked and scientific answers not are totally sufficient for some. I am the first to admit, however, that religion does not either. We have to accept the fact that absolute answers are a mystery and likely to remain so. And that, in a way, is what makes life so interesting….
Hope, yes. And there IS GOOD as well as evil. Both exist. Perhaps you become an optimist and believe in the good beacuse you have been given the gift of seeing it and loving it and are lucky not to have not been overwhelmed by the abuse of evil. I like to speak of the spiritual life rather than the religious life. The religious life means that you belong to a club of believers with certain specific beliefs. Perhaps it is a very good club, but one capable of great evil as well as great good. Certainly history tells us that. Ironically, we must and we will continue to work to help good overcome evil, knowing full well that we will never ultimately succeed, given human nature. Thank you, Joe, for your very thoughtful and wonderful essay.
Well said, Dickson and agree that there is fine line between the religious and the spiritual and both have merit. I do confess that I belong to the All Souls Episcopal Church “club” which does have specific beliefs though I am Exhibit A that this club does not throw people out for “bad beliefs” because if they did I would be the first to go. I think that given the choice of having to choose between being spiritual and religious, I would go for spiritual.