It can’t be done: after riding through the romantic landscape of Christmas on the rippling back of reassuring cultural signifiers and emotional triggers, one cannot dismount without one’s foot sinking into a steaming pile of religion. Best to know where one stands.
As far as belief goes, I am agnostic. Don’t grin. What other position is there for the befuddled, the timid, those of us unable, or unwilling to take a bold and heartening leap of faith in either direction? I’m guessing that most of us in this rather weak-kneed tribe strongly suspect the atheists of having the upper hand. Otherwise why not just be a believer and relax? But, however hard I try to defend against the seductions of religion, or even against the impure thoughts a simple belief in God can lead to, I am, at heart, and when it comes down to it, besotted. What my foot sinks into this time of year, especially when dismounting the culture’s sentimental Christmas warhorse, smells good to me.
I could go on about my lifelong slow dance with Christianity, from the flinty Calvinism in which I was raised, through the mystical traditions and Liberation Theology which spoke loudly to me in college, to my current, and most homelike, resting spot in a “high church” episcopalian congregation. I cannot deny my roving eye; other religions have always enthralled. So-called “Eastern religion”, for one, rather predictably perhaps, given my placement in white, educated middle class, post-1960’s America. But more beguiling has been Judaism, especially that of the Hasidim. I’ve always found profoundly affirming their huge, often unhinged desire for God paired with an ultimate despair of ever being able to cozy up to Him. Through it all, no matter how jilted, injured, or lost they may be, they never let go of that great desire, flamelike and pungent. They can’t. Just as, in the end, I can’t let go the great arc of the Christian narrative.
I think the reason, beyond its cultural cache, the ever-gripping theater of the Eucharist, the art, the music, the poetry, Bach, beyond the reassuring ease with which I recognize Christianity’s outlines and thereby know my wits and whereabouts, or think I do, the reason it continues to compel me is the vocabulary it provides for talking about matters of far greater import than Christianity itself. The story of Christ’s birth alone, beginning with the annunciation, through its gathering of shepherds, beasts, imperial dictates and petty kings, magi, stable, star, and all the rest, delivers into our fumbling hands almost every tool for living, if not always happily or safely, then always beautifully, rightly, and with greatest fullness. Perhaps my favorite verses in Luke’s famous second chapter are 15 and 16: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into Heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which The Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” How I love these ragtags, who, after having the pants scared off of them, refused to brood or cower, but decided then and there to go, and, by making haste, found, found what amazed them, and found what filled with wonder all who heard their account. I am slow, I find, in learning to live like this.
Add to this the rest, Christ’s life, works, death and resurrection, what Wallace Stevens called “that old catastrophe”, and what emerges is perhaps the most complex and complete portrait of a deity, at once full-throated and dazzlingly nuanced, of any of the world’s religions, not merely a vision of God, but a god who is, godself, visionary. So that when absurdity beyond measure lands on Newtown, Connecticut, the dean of the cathedral I attend can say to us, “We should not be asking ‘How could God let this happen?’ Rather it is God who asks us, ‘How could you let this happen?’ Such is not God’s vision for us.” And hearing him say this, it strikes me that we have, by and large, so far at least, been content to stop at being terrified by the angels, cowering, brooding, and so have yet to hear what they have announced, and have yet to decide to go, and in the going itself, “with haste”, to find. For Christianity this is the heart of the matter, what we are here for. With such a compelling narrative, mere “belief” seems beside the point.
And now it is Christmas Day. In our part of the world, as the Earth continues to warm, an enervating brown has become the new white against which we pin our glittering hopes. But last night a light, gracious dusting of snow came while we were at church singing Gloria in excelsis deo, and has remained. Late last week the last of the Newtown slaughtered was, as we say, “laid to rest” in a land which, for the living among us, remains rest-free. I’ve just taken a cake out of the oven. It’s a French version of a cheese cake made with chèvre and whipped egg whites. Later I’ll mix honey with Heering cherry liquor for drizzling. We’ll have this after roast chicken and root vegetables. Sam thinks the roasted roots are a bit if a cliche, but I love them. Our friend Terri has joined us. Our friend Mary Louise will soon be arriving with her marvelous dog, Molly. We’ll exchange a few gifts, which will consist primarily of music and books. We will all acknowledge, whether aloud or in our hearts how good it is that Sam is with us restless ones this year. This is how, today at least, we will love. And we will hold, like the Hasidim, our love, our desire, for God or the idea of God, for each other, for living. No agnosticism here, in this I believe with conviction, that this is how, for today at least, we will go, find, and be found.
The Christmas Star
by Gabriela Mistral (tr. Maria Giachetti)
A little girl
she caught and carries a star.
She goes flying, making the plants
and animals she passes
bend with fire.
Her hands already sizzle,
she tires, wavers, stumbles,
and falls headlong,
but she gets right up with it again.
Her hands don’t burn away,
nor does the star break apart,
although her face, arms,
chest and hair are on fire.
She burns down to her waist.
People shout at her
and she won’t let it go;
her hands are parboiled,
but she won’t release the star.
Oh how she sows its seeds
as it hums and flies.
They try to take it away–
but how can she live
without her star?
It didn’t simply fall–it didn’t.
It remained without her,
and now she runs without a body,
changed transformed into ashes.
The road catches fire
and our braids burn,
and now we all receive her
because the entire Earth is burning.