The Universal Notebook: The spirit of Christmas

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Happy holidays, dear readers, and best wishes to all Maine people regardless of how they worship this time of year.

These short cold days and long dark nights provide an annual occasion for deep reflection, whether upon the divine or the natural. Either way, we are reminded that this world is a miracle. Not to appreciate that fact is not to be fully alive.

Though I grew up in and remain a member of the Congregational Church, I deliberately did not begin this column by wishing readers a Merry Christmas. I suppose some will suggest I am being politically correct by not doing so, but I don’t see it that way. It’s just that not all readers are Christians, nor are all holidays this time of year.

There is a broad spectrum of Christian faiths, just as there are different forms of Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. I have grown up in a tradition that teaches that no one religion has an absolute lock on the truth. All religions are human expressions of a will to the divine. The forms they take and ways they worship their God depends on when and where the faith arose and developed. One God, many religions.

Conservative Christians seem to believe that only they are favored of God and will be taken up into heaven. I doubt that very much. The holier-than-thou Christianity that focuses on sin and damnation does not look much like Christianity to me. Jesus and Buddha teach the same things – compassion, forgiveness, service and selflessness.

We are called upon to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, extend an extravagant welcome to the refugee, work for justice such that this troubled world might be transformed into the Kingdom of God. If you cannot embrace your LGBTQ friends and family, if you cannot accept that all races are one human family, if you cannot defend the right of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews to worship as they see fit, you are not much of a Christian as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, “as far as I’m concerned” is the problem. Do not trust anyone who claims to speak for God or Jesus. I preach compassion, but I have no tolerance for the intolerant. As Whitman wrote in “Leaves of Grass,” “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.”

When it comes to the radical forgiveness that Christ teaches, I am not there yet. I think of the 2006 slaughter of Amish school children in Pennsylvania and how the Amish community immediately forgave the killer. That’s true forgiveness. I’m sorry, I’m just not that good.

The true spirit of Christmas is the peace of Christ that passes all understanding, a peace that is a relief from all pain and suffering, physical, mental and spiritual. That is why during each worship service we “pass the peace,” shaking hands warmly with the words, “The peace of Christ be with you.” Buddhists do this with a bow that acknowledges the Buddha in all of us. Jews say “Sholem Aleichem,” Muslims “Salaam alaikum.”

Peace be with you.

My favorite time of the year is Christmas Eve when we sing “O Holy Night” and hold lighted candles in the close and holy darkness. We raise and lower the candles together as we sing, “Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”

Words of aspiration and inspiration. That is the Christmas spirit to me.

Merry Christmas!

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.