Friday, December 24, 2004

Faith Is Not a Photo Op - Silliness & The Spirit of the Season

I will return on Monday, December 27, from celebrating Christmas with my family. Until then, savor this wise and lovely piece by Pulitzer Prize winning author Anna Quindlen, from the current issue of Newsweek.

Warmest blessings of the season to you and yours!

Without even breaking a sweat you could find at least a dozen performances of Handel's "Messiah" in New York City during the month of December. There was one at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, at Avery Fisher Hall, at Queensborough Community College, at Carnegie Hall, at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. The Mormons had a sing-along version at their building near Lincoln Center: "For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth! Alleluia!"

From the plastic creches on the lawns in the boroughs to the giving trees set up in the back of churches downtown, Christmas came in all its many manifestations to New York. This is a city of nearly a million Jewish residents, where Muslims are one of the fastest-growing religious groups. But the Christian holiday is celebrated in all its red-and-green glory, with lights and candles and gifts and prayers. And in the spirit of the season, let us make this solemn vow: we will not insist, in the name of piety, on rubbing the faces of those who don't believe in Christ's divinity in the anniversary of his birth.

"Humbug!" cried Scrooge before he got a chance to spend the night practicing a little empathy, and that's the best word to sum up the current hue and cry about the demise of Christmas. While cars zoomed by with trees lashed to their roofs and worshipers crowded the pews to listen as John the Baptist prepared the way, a wave of organized outrage suggested that Christmas is being driven out of existence. Who killed it? Liberal orthodoxy, secular humanism. Whenever people start throwing around science-fair phrases it's a bet that they want their opinions to sound inviolate because they are not.

So the silly annual examples are trotted out, the schools that censor Christmas carols, the townships that insist that the evergreen decorated with lights is a holiday tree. No one searches his soul about how we came to this pass. It has little to do with separation of church and state or liberal politics and everything to do with the way the blunt cudgel of Christianity has been heedlessly used, the tyranny of the majority. After years of Jewish parents' sitting through school concerts listening to the words "It is the night of our dear savior's birth," maybe oversensitivity was inevitable, since any other kind of sensitivity had been in short supply.

From the trials of witches in Salem to the talking-head evangelists of the present day, we have a rich tradition of faith-based bullying in this country. "The fact is, 96 percent of us celebrate Christmas," said a representative of a swat team of lawyers organized "to serve the body of Christ" by orchestrating challenges to inadequate public celebration. Humbug. One study estimates roughly 75 percent of Americans are Christian; the rest are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostics. "We must never allow our children to forget that this is a Christian nation," Jerry Falwell recently said from the pulpit. Humbug. Two out of three Americans in one poll said they oppose any attempt to make it so by constitutional amendment.

Christmas is being observed exactly where it ought to be, at homes, in our hearts, among friends and families. The modern movement to exhibit it in town squares and mall food courts is precisely what has led to the secularization of one of our most solemn holy days. That's why some Jewish leaders have been uncomfortable with reducing the Chanukah menorah to a dueling religious symbol, paired with a Christmas tree for the sake of equal time. Faith is not a photo op.

Sure, it sounds silly when you hear that a holiday concert at one public school included Chanukah and regional folk songs but no carols, or that the kibosh was put on a production of "A Christmas Carol" because Tiny Tim's curtain line is "God bless us, every one!" So touchy, onlookers say. Christian onlookers, that is, who never have to worry about feeling like second-class spiritual citizens. Maybe in the future the carols will return, and Tim with his little crutch, too. Maybe someday we will be a country and a culture so accepting of differences that all will feel their traditions are honored.

In the meantime, if the secularized greeting of the perfume spritzer in the department store affects your celebration of the birth in Bethlehem, you've really lost your way. Luckily, for most truly religious people, observing the feast is not about shouting "Merry Christmas" at passersby to show that you believe even if they do not, an exercise in smug superiority disguised as faith. It is an interior process of considering the lessons the child in the manger would teach once grown.

So if people are really worried about keeping Christ in Christmas, they might personally exhibit tolerance and charity, kindness and generosity. It is the ultimate exercise of style over substance to whine about the absence of "O Holy Night" at public events. The real point is in taking the lyrics to heart: "Truly he taught us to love one another/His law is love and his gospel is peace." And if saying "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" offers someone who is not of your faith more comfort and joy—well, 'tis the season for both.

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