Moderated by Tom Sabulis
What are some of our religious leaders thinking this Christmas Eve? We invited a Christian and a Muslim to offer their views on how the holiday is celebrated and observed from a distance, respectively. Our deeds, spirit and pursuit of material goods (i.e. presents) all come into question. In our third column, we present reader comments from our blog regarding recent transportation columns.
By Patricia Templeton
Like many families, we spend Christmas Eve doing last minute errands: the trip to the store, the stop by the church to make sure everything is ready for the evening’s services, wrapping those last packages.
My racing around is always accompanied by a special soundtrack: the live radio broadcast of Christmas Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England. Hearing Christianity’s sacred stories — from the Garden of Eden through the birth of Christ, and listening to the beautiful Christmas hymns and carols — helps set the mood of the day for me.
Or usually it does.
But on this day, the announcer signed off with these words, “And so ends the broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The people are now preparing to leave this lovely chapel, warm with the presence of God, to go out into the cold world.”
Those words stunned me.
Leave the presence of God behind in a church? Really?
Certainly I believe God is present in church — in that Cambridge chapel that morning, and in worship services around the world tonight.
But I don’t believe for a minute that God stays behind when we leave church and go into the world.
Ironically, we heard those words as my family was headed to a Christmas Eve service at Woodruff Park with members of Church of the Common Ground, an Episcopal ministry with downtown Atlanta’s homeless population.
It was cold. No lavish flower arrangements graced the makeshift altar. The music was not well rehearsed. Much of the congregation was not particularly well groomed. At least one person wandered into the service after being released from the nearby Fulton County Jail.
But I can assure you that God was present in that place.
Over the last year, I have found myself reflecting on that announcer’s words. I think he missed the point of Christmas. So have news commentators who every year wonder how we can celebrate Christmas with any joy in the face of whatever tragedy has just occurred, as if Christmas can only be celebrated in a perfect world. The truth is just the opposite.
The world into which Jesus was born was not perfect. He was born in the darkness, the cold, into a land occupied by a foreign empire. He came in poverty and vulnerability, to a world filled with violence and evil.
Tonight, we celebrate Christ’s coming again into just such a world, one that desperately longs for God’s justice and peace, for a God who identifies not just with our joys, but with our deepest fears and sorrows.
Tonight, parishes like mine open our doors and invite any and all to come celebrate the birth of a child who we believe is God’s Word made flesh. We’ll worship in churches aglow with candle light and beautiful flowers and glorious music. We’ll rejoice in God’s being with us there.
And then we’ll go into the cold world again, knowing that God is there, too.
That is the real meaning of Christmas.
The Rev. Patricia Templeton is rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.
By Plemon T. El-Amin
“To every people God has appointed rites and ceremonies which they are to observe.” Quran 22:67
This verse keeps the Christmas season in perspective for me as a Muslim. People of every faith and cultural group have special holidays they should celebrate and preserve in the best of their ways and traditions. I have come to be a conscientious onlooker of Diwali, Yom Kippur, Kwanza, Christmas and other celebrations, always finding in them enlightenment and ways to enhance our Islamic Eid festivities.
Of course, you can’t avoid Christmas here in the U.S., even if you tried. It’s every non-Christian parent’s dilemma: “How do we raise our young children without Santa, an indoor fir tree or jingle bells?” It’s not easy, and if, as in my case, you throw in Christian grandparents, it’s a serious challenge. Christmas fills the atmosphere, saturates the environment, and nowadays lasts from Halloween (another challenge) until New Year’s Eve. And its extreme commercialism and blinding consumerism is something that baffles and disturbs the outsider, who clings cautiously to the sidelines, fearing being swept up and into the raging outflow of cash and credit.
Still, from those sidelines, you see and feel so much good emanating from Christmastime: the spirit of giving, the family gatherings, the compassion for “the least of these” and “the other,” the remembrance of God and the adoration of Christ Jesus, all inspire this Muslim to overlook the challenges and to thank God for the good of the season.
Our differences are as much a gift as our commonalities. Oftentimes, they are much harder to unwrap, but if we are open enough, brave enough or just inquisitive enough to encounter the dissimilar, the unusual or the different, we may discover the unexpected. Not only might we come to see the virtues of the other, we may also perceive a clearer reflection of ourselves and our possibilities.
May we expand the season’s tradition of caring into the New Year and into the lives of all “the others.” May this be the year that Atlanta transcends its slogan of being “too busy to hate” and embraces its diversity as a gift and a strength, which inspires us to know, value and engage the other as one of our own. It is then that we will discover the best of ourselves as individuals, as faith and ethnic communities, and as a city of compassion, never too busy to care.
It is revealed in the Quran: “To each is a goal to which God turns them, so strive together (as if in a race) towards all that is good. Wheresoever you are, God will bring you together, for God has power over all things.” 2:148
Prophet Muhammed (on him be peace) said, “By the One in Whose Hand is my soul, you will not enter Paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another. Shall I tell you of something which if you do it, you will love one another? Spread the greetings of peace among yourselves.”
May I extend season’s greetings to you all: “Peace on earth, and good will to humankind.”
Plemon T. El-Amin is imam emeritus of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam.