Here's hoping for a Festivus for all of us

December 28, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

I GUESS IT wouldn't be very Christian of me to start an argument with the driver of the car with the bumper sticker that reads "Christians aren't better, just better off." I spotted this one in a shopping center the other day and, while I'm usually just mildly amused at bumper stickers - "What if the hokeypokey really is what it's all about?" - this one about Christians being better off scraped against some sensitive nerve, probably because it's that time of year when I figure Christians are reflecting, at least for a few minutes, on what it means to be one.

The whole idea of Christians thinking they've found the better way to live in this world - and bragging about it in public - didn't strike me as particularly Christian. I don't think that's what Jesus wanted from his followers.

I can't say for sure - because he was born two millenniums ago and hasn't taken calls on C-Span lately - but I don't think he wanted us to compare religions the way we compare major appliances or mutual funds. Jesus was a big thinker and eager debater; he held strong opinions. Unlike most liberals throughout history, he was not afraid to take his own side in an argument.

But I don't think you'd see Jesus walking through shopping centers slapping "Christians are better off" bumper stickers on cars. Excuse my heretical interpretations, but I think Jesus' message was pretty simple - you affirm your existence on Earth, your reason for being, with devotion to love, justice and peace.

But that's just me, and, as I said, I don't want to spend the Sunday between Christmas and New Year's having a religious argument. And, if I'm going to take the Christ-like approach, I've got to reach out and love the owner of the car with that annoying bumper sticker.

I believe that's what my particular faith calls on me to do - to love unconditionally. (A priest who works with some of the worst among us, murderers serving life sentences in Maryland prisons, finally got that through to me.) But Christianity doesn't have an exclusive claim on that concept. It's something that transcends race, nationality, ethnicity and religion - and we'd all be better off if we understood that.

And I think we do. I think we're getting it. Though the world as we view it in the West seems irreparably mad - with terrorist threats, endless violence and deep divisions along racial and religious lines - there is a transcendent spirit growing among us, and it seems to reveal itself more fully at this time of year. I may be wrong, or just thinking wishfully, but I doubt it.

I hear people dismiss as political correctness the use of the phrase "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," or, in recent years, the increased news coverage of Ramadan, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

I see it as something else - a recognition that, in the winter darkness, all people seek the light in some way. The senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, seemed to have his hand on this the other day in New Hampshire when he told reporters: "In these difficult times in world history, it is more important for us as individuals to reaffirm our faith in our own lives, and also for us as Americans to reaffirm our birthright of religious freedom, to embrace the diversity of religion as a unique strength" of America.

You know, Festivus wasn't a bad idea.

When we first heard of it, how many of us shared with Frank Costanza - the character played by Jerry Stiller on Seinfeld - the attitude about Christmas that led to the creation of his holiday?

Frank (Costanza, George's father): "Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had - but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way."

Kramer: "What happened to the doll?"

Frank: "It was destroyed. But out of that, a new holiday was born - a Festivus for the rest of us."

A Festivus for All of Us would be good.

I'm not saying eliminate Christmas, but add Festivus.

The birth of Christ is one of human history's great stories. We take from it sympathy for the poor and homeless, and find in it the virtues of humility, charity and faith. I particularly like the idea of the wealthy and wise men giving gifts to the most destitute child born in a stable.

So the themes that come through at Christmas are universal.

And there are other aspects of the season that everyone - particularly in the Northern Hemisphere - can experience and celebrate.

Coming as it does around the time of the winter solstice and the longest nights of the year - the time of the sun's southernmost rise and set - Christmas fills us with the first twinkle of light and hope. Spring still may be a long way off, but on this side of the solstice, the days are getting longer, and we know that the sun will be full and warm the Earth again soon.

The ancients sensed when the darkness was losing its long grip on each day, and they got down on their knees and gave thanks for that because it meant they would get to plant crops and live for another year.

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