A Moderately Merry Christmas
On a chilly but snowless Christmas Eve here in my corner of Philadelphia, you’ll find me stretched out on the living room sofa, laptop in its proper place, Christmas tree straight ahead, glimmering in the soft light and still nearly perpendicular to the floor. My seven-year-old son is nestled snug in his bed, while visions of Lego blocks dance in his head.
When I was my son’s age, Christmas Eve ranked even higher than Halloween as the most enchanted night of the year. The melding of ancient Nativity lore, European carols, pagan winter magic and that great white-bearded bringer of gifts produced a euphoric inward glow that I remember fondly to this day.
The magic has mostly faded, though I’ve had a chance to recover some of it as the upper-middle-aged father of a spirited young boy. Still, I have to wonder how long our Christmases will seem even remotely magical as we slip into an uncertain, unsettling and increasingly dark era in our history.
Granted, the news isn’t all bad. The troops are home from Iraq… 2011 has produced a rare bumper crop of dead dictators and terrorists… Arabs and even Americans have been taking to the streets to demand political, social and economic justice. We love our iPhones and iPads; we Google and Tweet and Like with merry abandon. House Speaker Boehner even broke ranks with the Tea Party to push Obama’s two-month payroll tax break through Congress.
But most of us are still bleeding money. More than a decade after the fabled dotcom crash of 2000, the Nasdaq is treading water at half its former peak. American companies aren’t hiring nearly enough Americans. When they do, they’re increasingly hiring through temp agencies and spawning a new underclass of white-collar migrant workers. Meanwhile, upstart internet behemoths continue to reduce traditional retailers to rubble. Bookstores, magazines and newspapers teeter on the brink of extinction. A few big companies own our most prominent surviving media… numerous big companies own our representatives in Congress.
The rich are getting richer at the expense of the disappearing middle class, and legions of struggling patriots touchingly defend their right to do so. Trickle-down economics has failed us, yet Obama is too timid and stymied to try a trickle-up approach: create federal jobs in the manner of FDR, put money into the pockets of cash-strapped Americans in exchange for honest work, and give them the wherewithal to become active consumers again. But of course we’re not allowed to meddle with the holy free market. That would be sacrilege.
Lest you suspect that my sympathies are drifting leftward, I should reaffirm my belief that business and government have been partners in crime. The public sector reeks with corruption and entrenched privilege every bit as much as the boardrooms of Wall Street.
Sorry if my Christmas sermon is making me look like a 24-karat cynic; I’m actually only a 14-karat cynic. I still don’t believe most Americans are corrupt or evil, even at the top (though I might make an exception for Grover Norquist). Like most living organisms, they simply want to survive, inflate their status, mate happily and create a safe environment for the propagation of their genes. But nature isn’t especially fair, and neither is our plutocracy.
At Christmas, probably more than at any other time of year, I have to wonder who’s really in charge of such an amoral universe. The natural world is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Most of us still cling to belief in a loving God, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Why would a God who cares about us as individuals allow a single one of us to die a lingering and miserable death, let alone go prematurely bald? Why would such a God allow good people to go quietly mad while scoundrels and reality-show stars thrive?
The fundamentalists are as certain as always that a just and mighty God rules over all of creation; they base their evidence on the ancient scriptures that tell them so. Atheists, of course, are every bit as certain as the fundamentalists, and they derive just as much comfort from their certainty.
The rest of us have to make do with an increasingly shaky and battle-scarred faith. We’ve wrestled with God, with the Bible, with the purported divinity of Jesus… and after all that wrestling, we’re still not sure if the Gospels are gospel. Have we been royally hoodwinked for the past two thousand years? Have we been placing our faith in fallible narratives embellished by devoted and eternally optimistic disciples? Was that heralded baby in the manger a mere mortal — or something more mysterious and infinitely greater?
People like us will never know, but we can always hope. To all you skeptical Christians out there, I wish you a moderately merry Christmas!