A woman looks on as she prays in the Church of the Nativity on December 22, 2011 in Bethlehem, West Bank. Every year pilgrims travel to the church at Christmas time where a gold star embedded in the floor, marks the spot where Jesus was believed to be born.
Christmas is about joy and celebration. For many of us, the parties, the songs and the cheer are traditions that remind us of our childhood, of idealized family lives, of a time when our imaginations were free. Far from being contrary to the religiosity of Christmas, these elements of celebration are affirming of the message of the feast: joy to the world.
But Christmas invites Christians to take another step, and I don’t mean go to church–sadly that is too often a perfunctory step on the way to the big party under the tree. No, going to church is not celebrating Christmas. Shame on us if we think of our faith as checking a box–writing a check, singing a song, or even reading the good book.
Celebrating Christmas is believing the wild voice that echoes from the gospel of John: “God so loved the world that he sent his only son.” Don’t let those words just roll past you. Stop and hear them as though a voice from all eternity were calling to you now–today–the voice of all things created and uncreated, the voice of the same energy that created the Big Bang, the voice of the same force that holds the universe together even as it spins at a gazillion miles an hour into space that does not yet exist, the voice that sustains the drama of color, the elegance of music, the tenderness of childhood, the beauty of age. It is that voice saying simply: “I love you.”
To listen to that voice might require that you search for the hardest thing to find at Christmas: a silent night. Or if you can’t get a whole night of silence, try for even a moment where you can quiet the noise in your mind, the energy of those around you, your long list of things to do. Try to find just a moment of silent night all your own. And see if you can hear in silence God is looking for you, wanting you, calling you with tenderness, saying over and over again, “I love you so much.”
Julian of Norwich put it simply: “Love was His meaning.” In our time, the word love may have lost its meaning, but on Christmas, maybe we can recover some of the power of it. We’re all lost in some way, all struggling to find where we belong, wondering how we’ll find success, trying to earn our way to friends and community, maybe most painfully not even knowing who we are. These are fears that sit at the center of our lives. Some we carry from childhood, some we fall into through struggle or loss, still others find us in moments where answers seem to disappear. All these fears are not necessary for faith, but they help us to understand how faith differs from everything else. If it is God’s voice calling to us with words of tenderness, gentleness and love, it can be felt at the very core of who we are–where our deepest fears and hopes reside. God’s voice is there, calling in the silence, with simplicity: “I love you.”
Christmas comes then in a kind of silent night, a holy night where all is calm, where all is bright. The voice of God echoes in that calm through the ages-to Adam, “Where are you?” To Moses, “I will be with you.” To Ruth, “where you lie down, I will lie down.” To Mary, “don’t be afraid.” And in the baby, vulnerable, little, and held closely by mother and father, we see the free choice of God to be among us, to free us from whatever burdens we carry, to tell us we are never alone, to be as close to us as we are to each other.
This is our faith, the good news, the source of the joy and celebration. It is this good news that we can announce to those of all religions–not to convert them but to embrace them. This good news knows no boundaries. This good news is for us to announce to all: You are precious to God. You who are weak, you are precious to God. You who feel like a stranger, you are precious to God. You who feel alone, you are precious to God. Christians may tell this story of the child in Bethlehem as an act of belief in a creed, but the story is much bigger than creed or cult. It is for us. It is the story of a lover. We only need fall.
Maybe our response is simply to love life. Maybe our response is simply to look quietly into the depths ourselves and love what we are. Maybe our response is to strive mightily to build up communities of welcome and justice for others. Maybe our response is to follow the advice of Meister Eckhart, the Dominican mystic, who said, “If the only prayer you say your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
If thank you is a prayer, Christmas is the day to say it. And maybe say one more thing: “I love you too.”
Timothy Shriver is president and CEO of the Special Olympics.