Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Meaning of Christmas

It's the season of Christmas cards, gift giving, and pointless arguments about wars on Christmas and replacing Christ with X. In other words, for someone like me who likes philosophy and family, it's the greatest time of the year!

I had a conversation about the holiday with Taviri this week. It was a hard thing to explain, since the holiday is such a strange mix of secular and religious. Even without getting into the historical connections to Yule and Roman pagan celebrations, it's a complex time of year. Taviri asked me what Christmas was, and I tried to answer. In the process of talking about it, I discovered some aspects of the holiday that I had always enjoyed without really knowing it.

C.S. Lewis, the writer and Christian apologist, was fond of the trilemma argument for Christ's divinity. It goes like this: either Christ was insane, lying, or God. That's it. Now, I don't believe that Christ was a literal son of God, for various reasons, but this argument is interesting to me in what it leaves out. In reality I think it is a five-horned argument (pentalemma?). The historical person either didn't exist, was a liar, was God, was insane, or was a teacher who used metaphor. I fall in the teacher camp, like many people. What interests me about that is not the how or why, though, but what it means.

For one, it lets me use this awesome sketch of a historical Jesus. But most importantly, it allows me to frame the story of Christ's birth with that context and make a meaningful idea of Jesus for Taviri.

Think of the Christmas story. An angel comes to a poor woman, tells her that she is pregnant with a special child who will be a savior of his people. He will be a great leader. The parents are instructed to set aside their worldly concerns about parentage and just love the child. Wise men come from far away to see and bless the child. This is the story of birth, period. It's a metaphor for welcoming a special person into the world every time a woman gives birth. It's really a wonderful little tale of love for your family.

There is a children's book called "Tonight You Are My Baby." It's a sweet story, about Mary speaking to Jesus as an infant. She tells him that he has all of this to do, and he belongs to the world, but at least tonight, he can just be her baby. Isn't that the story of family? We have a few precious moments, our baby can just be there in our arms. They are not for us. They are for the world, for themselves. They go away from us almost as soon as they can, seeking their destiny. But for a night, a day, a year, they are just ours, wrapped up in our love.

All knowledge is local, as one of my favorite writers reminds me. I am not concerned with the religious dogma. The truth is the truth, and I understand it as best I can. I have no idea what the historical Jesus was like, who he was. I don't think anyone does, despite the claims to the contrary. But I can see a baby, a mother, a father, unsure of the future, huddled together for one night. They tell the baby he is special, that they love him. That's a pretty amazing story. I can celebrate that.

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