by Peter Gathje
Each faith in its distinctive way remembers the goodness of life, of being with each other, and the responsibility to be compassionate and seek the well-being of others.
Faith and the holidays are inextricably bound together. Yet the religious traditions that gave birth to the “holiday season” are perhaps as difficult to negotiate as a holiday meal with a distempered relative. Is there a “war on Christmas?” Should we tell our child that Santa Claus is a fantasy? Should people who are not Christian put up a tree and exchange gifts? Do Muslims have a holiday to celebrate this time of year? Is Hannukah the Jewish Christmas? What are Hindus doing putting up all those lights? Do Buddhists see Jesus as a Bodhisattva?
Even starting to ask those questions is a sure way to get into hot water. What religious traditions were not mentioned? Who gets to speak for what a religion holds? A quick read of articles that examine being Buddhist, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu, or anything other than Christian at Christmastime, reveals the difficulties of negotiating various religious traditions in the holiday season.
The flipside to such potential for controversy is that the faiths celebrating during “the holidays” are as delightfully diverse as “the holidays” themselves. It is true that in the U.S. the holidays originated in the celebration of the Christian feast of Christmas. Yet the holidays today, at their best, have expanded to draw in celebrants from a variety of faiths and no faith at all.
And here is where we might want to focus. At the heart of the holidays, in all of the faiths, is a wonderful affirmation of human compassion, of the goodness of human life, and the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. This heart of the holidays even plays out in secular versions that appear in holiday movies and days off of work to gather with family and friends. In this holiday spirit we can go with the Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah who said, “Anything that inspires us to see what is true and do what is good is proper practice.”
For those in the Christian tradition, human compassion, hope, and the victory of goodness are grounded in the celebration of the birth of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ birth is marked by angels who appear praising God and proclaiming, “on earth peace among those with whom God is pleased.” Within Judaism, the Feast of Hannukah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple after the overthrow of foreign rule. The lighting of the Menorah commemorates the miracle of enough lamp oil in those days of scarcity to keep the lamp in the Temple lit for eight days. For Buddhists, “Bodhi Day” on December 8th recalls the day of Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The Hindu feast of Diwali is a festival of lights, and across its many meanings is a shared affirmation of the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil. For Muslims, Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. Renewed in their faith through the practices of Ramadan, Muslims emerge with refreshed connection with each other and with the world, celebrated with gatherings and good food.
Each faith in their distinctive ways remembers the goodness of life, of being with each other, and the responsibility to be compassionate and seek the well-being of others. Each faith also recalls people to a kind of humility and shared humanity. Jesus was born on the margins, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, to a people enduring foreign occupation. He comes, as he says, “to bring good news to the poor.” The Menorah was lit as a way for the Jewish people to once again affirm their existence against powerful forces that sought to extinguish them. The Buddha emptied of the trappings of wealth and status came to enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Dwali’s lamps symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness, and the defeat of those forces that try to coerce us towards evil. Eid al-Fitr affirms the goodness of spending time with loved ones, of shared meals, of sharing with the poor, and gathering for worship of God.
There is in these religious traditions, at the heart of the holidays, a counter-cultural message that is often lost in the sea of consumerism that now surrounds the holiday season. Joy comes in attending to our relationships with family and friends, with each other, and not in the acquisition of more and more things. Love affirms the goodness of each person in the midst of our diversities if we are to live well together. Hope realistically acknowledges the difficulties and dangers of human life, but still affirms life shared with each other is worth living. Faith undergirds joy, and love, and hope. And faith in this holiday season, affirms that sorrow, separation, and the shadows of our lives, may be our teachers if we listen to the wisdom that life is stronger than death, and that light is stronger than darkness.