- Carv's Thinky Blog - http://christiancarvajal.com -

Merry Solstice!

The King James Bible tells us, "Faith is the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld (Heb. 11:1)." For over half my life now, I've had a problem with that definition. How do 'realities demonstrate themselves evidently' without being 'beheld?' In other words, what's the difference between faith and gullibility, a confident belief in the unproven? Some atheists claim there is no difference, and semantically speaking, it's hard to make a case for the distinction. The New International Version puts it more simply: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Faith and hope are intertwined. Are they, in fact, the same thing? I suppose faith adds absolute certainty to hope, and to some of us, that seems misguided and dangerous. But to you, perhaps, faith is everything, the basis of your life. I don't plan to disrespect that, but I will stick with hope in my own life. I find it's enough.

I don't know if I believe in True Love, capital T, capital L. We can't even seem to agree what that phrase means. But I do know that I'm in love. Is that faith? Doesn't matter. I don't need faith to love and feel love from my family and friends. I need hope to accept that my girlfriend is in love with me, but not much. There's considerable evidence to support my belief. Maybe faith is hope in something, or Someone, for which, or in Whom, there's no compelling evidence? I suppose we could argue that all day. Let's move on.

Last night I participated in a sing-along version of Handel's Messiah, a piece I've enjoyed for many years. It's become an essential part of my Christmas experience. (Some of my atheist friends scoff at that, but honestly, the Christian religion has given us many of the world's greatest works of art, almost as many as artists' inarguable need to get on rich people's good side. I appreciate the great works Christian thought and emotion have bequeathed to us.) Messiah got me thinking, as it often does, about what Christmas means to me, vocal skeptic that I am, and why I look forward to the holidays each year. It's not just a few days off work, it's...well..."magical." Right?

Okay, so let's get a few historical items out of the way. I'm pretty sure we all know Jesus wasn't born on 25 December 0. For one thing, there was no year zero. Second, he wasn't born in winter, or there wouldn't be flocks in the fields. Matthew and Luke provide conflicting information about when he was born; the former thinks 4 BC, the latter three years earlier, during the first census of Judea. (Mark and John say nothing at all about Jesus' birth. Weird, huh?) In fact, Matthew and Luke disagree on almost every detail of the Nativity narrative. Matthew thinks an angel spoke to Joseph after Jesus' conception. Luke tells the more familiar Gabriel story and sets it before the conception. Matthew, not Luke, tells the story of the star that guided the Magi (astrologers) from Jerusalem. Matthew, not Luke, claims Herod slaughtered the firstborn of Judea--a detail unsupported by even Flavius Josephus, who hated Herod. It's amazing, actually, how little Matthew and Luke's stories have in common, and how glibly we've woven them into one Western version.

Ah, but what a story, though, right? "Unto us," Handel promises, "a son is given...and the government shall be upon his shoulders." I wonder how King George II received that glorious sentiment. Maybe that's why he stood up before the Hallelujah Chorus.

Why do we put so much emphasis on the infant incarnation of the Messiah? After all, he hadn't done anything yet, though there are certainly some fascinating medieval legends about baby Jesus. Some of those tall tales are similar to stories of baby Clark Kent, tossing tractors and flying around his nursery. One story has baby Jesus leading several other toddlers into the clouds, until they lose faith and plummet to the earth. Grim!

I think we venerate the baby Jesus because he represents absolute hope: With Jesus in the world, good things are about to happen. Why, he could grow up to be any kind of Messiah we need. The Hebrews, of course, were banking on a King, a political crusader who would save them from the Romans. No such luck. Our present needs vary, but most of all, I think, Christians hope for a Messiah to make them happy and prevent them from dying.

The Church placed Christmas in late December, and we leave it there, for the same reason so many religions in human history commemorated the winter solstice: We need renewal in winter. We need encouragement. We need hope. The days shrink to nothing, while the nights are long and frigid. Nature seems thwarted by rain, snow and ice. We need to remind ourselves that good things have not been defeated, only suppressed for a while. We decorate Christmas trees for the same reason pagans hung apples and candles on trees centuries before Christ: We depend on the evergreen.

This has been the best year of my life. I know most of you can't say that. I know the economy is awful, Barack Obama is not the Last Son of Krypton, and you're fighting your own battles against nature and unkindness. I know your long drive home is lonely and dark. I know there'll be fewer gifts under the tree this year, and I know a few of you are dealing with grief that overwhelms any holiday. Gentle reader, I know what that's like. But I also know this: Hope is evergreen. From a natural standpoint, we just began a whole new year. There are wonderful things being conceived even now in your life, and they bring hope of real salvation.

Maybe we can agree faith is necessary hope, without which our lives would not be worth living. If that is faith, I have it, too. I believe "this too shall pass." I believe my loved ones love me back. I believe there are great things to come. I don't need religious faith, friends; I have hope. And I hope, too, that light will fall on your holiday season, whatever your spiritual beliefs. I believe you deserve it.

We'll talk again in 2010.