"No Gates, No Borders"
I was fascinated by a story I read in yesterday's NewYork Times. It told of a new and growing phenomenon among agnostics, atheists and humanists in the city (and throughout the country) who come together at this time of the year to celebrate "the spirit of what Christmas is all about."
The folks who gather together for these Christmas celebrations don't believe in God (at least not in the traditional sense). They are not Christians, and so their Christmas celebrations are not festivals for commemorating the birth of Christ. But rather, these folks come together for these "Christmas" celebrations because they somehow want to participate in the season, and they want it to be more than some sort of anemic "holiday" time marked by frenzied shopping and endless partying.
Yesterday's NewYork Times article described one particular "atheist-humanist" Christmas gathering last week. It was attended by around 150 people in an auditorium -mostly young folks. They gathered together to listen to uplifting music, have conversations, hear a "sermon," sing some songs, and experience a sense of community with one another. In his sermon, the leader of the gathering talked about the importance of encountering "transcendence" at this Christmastime of year. He went on to talk about Christmas as a a time to express charity toward others.
At the gathering they all sang some Christmas carols. One carol was: "Do you Hear what I Hear" (no mention of Jesus' birth but still a Christmas carol). Then they had a potluck dinner together.
In the interview, the leader of the assembly told the Times' reporter. "We may be atheists but we aren't a bunch of Scrooges -alienated, creepy folks."
As I reflected on the story in yesterday's paper, I thought to myself, "That gathering (and gatherings just like it all across the country) may have been Christmas without Christ, but it certainly was Christmas celebrated in the spirit of Christ."
When I look at the life and ministry of Jesus, I see no signs that he ever attempted to convert anyone to become his disciples. He ate dinner and had parties with those who had been cast away by the "established" temple religion of his own day. He embraced and healed foreigners and pagans. He was a rabbi who healed the servant of a Roman centurion -a hated enemy of the Jewish people.
Jesus' life and teaching was constantly marked by compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation and whole-hearted hospitality - everyone always welcome to the table, without restriction.
Jesus invited any who would wish to follow him to be his disciples, but there were no conditions ever placed on his love. And if you did follow him, you were expected to treat others the way he treated others, always welcoming everyone with unconditional acceptance - an open-ended invitation for everyone sitting at a place of dignity at the feast of life.
As I reflect upon that atheist-humanist "Christmas" gathering I read about yesterday, I think it has a lot to teach Christians about what Christmas is really all about.
Lots of people will go to church over the next few days and celebrate the birthday of Jesus. They will hear the stories and sing the carols announcing the birth of the Christ child, and then they will go home and live everyday lives of exclusion and self-centered gratification- lives totally opposed to the teaching of the Christ they profess to follow.
The atheists who celebrated a Christmas without Christ last week came together to find community, to seek transcendence and to go out to live a life of charity and kindness. It seems to me that this is really what Christmas is all about.
Christmas is not just for Christians.
Christmas is a feast of love, a time to welcome everyone to the table of life. Christmas is a time for being at peace with others. Christmas is a time for encountering something bigger in life- tapping into transcendence. Christmas is a time for reaching out in charity.
Everyone, everywhere, come and sit at the Christmas feast!
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