- A December Sunset -
When I was in gradate school, one of my closest friends was a committed atheist. Although he grew up in the Christian tradition, he had since come to dismiss it all as fantasy, which is why I was always amazed at how much he loved celebrating Christmas. Every year he and his wife put up a tree, exchanged presents, and looked forward to a festive Christmas dinner with their entire family. But even though Christmas was so important to him, my friend remained adamant about the fact that he had rejected the God of his childhood and no longer thought of himself as a Christian believer.
I thought about my friend the other day when I read an article about an “Atheist-Humanist” Christmas celebration that took place recently in New York City. Around 150 folks (mostly young), all of them self-proclaimed atheists or agnostics, met together in a mid-town banquet room decorated with Christmas trees and brightly-colored lights. They spent an evening enjoying each other’s company while sharing a common meal as they listened to poetry and were inspired by some uplifting music. They even sang a few Christmas carols (explaining that singing carols about Jesus doesn’t mean they are Christian believers).
One of the “atheists" at this “Christmas celebration” told an inquiring reporter: “You don’t have to believe in “God” or "Christ" to be open to an encounter with “transcendence,” and that’s why we gather together to celebrate “Christmas” here today, to open ourselves to transcendence.”
I am sure there are many Christian believers who would scoff at this idea of celebrating Christmas with out believing in Christ - personally, my heart is warmed by it all. It teaches me that the message and the poetry of this season goes beyond adherence to a particular creed or dogma and it shows me that, regardless of belief, every single of of us “longs” for something more in life, a greater truth, a deeper sense of transcendence.
I am reminded of an op-ed piece I once read in the New York Times:
When I hear people say they have no religious impulses whatsoever,
I want to respond: really?
I want to respond: really?
You have never felt something in yourself
staking a claim beyond yourself,
some wordless mystery straining to reach you,
Faith is this longing of every human heart.
At Christmastime we remember the birthday of the Christ, the one who welcomed everyone to the table of life - no one was ever left to stand outside of his circle of belonging. Public sinners and good religious people, rich and poor, sick and healthy, citizens and foreigners, all ate together with Jesus at the same table. He welcomed fellow Jews and with the same embrace he invited “pagans” and "non-believers" to walk alongside him on the journey of life.
When I think about my grad-school friend and consider that story of the Atheist Christmas, I can’t help but imagine that Christ would be the very first person to sit among those folks at that mid-town banquet hall in New York City, celebrating Christmas together with them.
I am reminded of a line from the Islamic poet, Rumi:
Move beyond any attachment to names.
Every war and every conflict between human beings has happened
because of some disagreement about names.
It’s such unnecessary foolishness because just beyond the arguing
there is a long table of companionship set and waiting for us all to sit down
Christmas is a time for all people of goodwill to move beyond the names they have put upon themselves and others. It’s a season for Christians and Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, atheists, agnostics and humanists to put aside the names and sit at the table together.
Christmas is a festival that celebrates the longings of every human heart and you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate Christmas – everyone is welcome to the feast!