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January 5, 2013

Religion column: Put away the baby pictures and use the Force

The Daily Star

---- — Every winter, Christians pull out a dusty family album and turn to the baby pictures. We delight in the old, old snapshots. We love those mangy shepherds in the dark field, shocked, by an angel among them, and then bedazzled by a whole mob of them raising a heavenly ruckus. And we love to see the shepherds rushing off to Bethlehem — running to see “the wonders that had been revealed.”

And how we love that stable scene! Mary, hands clasped. Joseph, leaning on his staff. Shepherds, mouths agape, arms spread as if reaching to grasp what’s happened there. And those kings, their rich robes falling in soft folds as they kneel in soggy straw.

And the animals! How we love their place in the baby pictures! The dull-eyed sheep and the donkey and, in some pictures, also a cow. And sometimes in the sky above the scene, there’s an angel, a leftover, maybe, from that heavenly ruckus, holding a banner. It reads, “Gloria!”

Oh, glorious indeed! But it’s so easy, reveling in those old photos, to get lost in sentimentality, lost in enjoyment at feeling tender. Babies, bless them, can do that to us.

But take another look at that baby. Blunt Christian belief is that he represents God Almighty, entering the world in a stunning new way and with a spectacular message. God Almighty, “Emmanuel,” God-with-us! Suddenly on the scene to jump-start stalled humanity on the road again!

That’s what the baby is all about. He’s Emmanuel, God dwelling in humanity. No wonder we name him, not just Savior, but also our brother. He’s what we’re called to be. 

And, oh, 30 years after the baby pictures, wasn’t his message so simple? “Answer the love of your Source, Infinite Love itself. And also love others as you love yourself.

I love me a lot, and unreservedly. I not only try to meet my every need and want and whim, but I try to anticipate them and meet them up right front. In loving me, I really go out of my way. 

And that’s the love I’m to give my neighbor — the real thing, what I shower on me. Jesus lays out the general principles of this in one of his best set pieces: The Beatitudes. (You’re blessed, he says, if you’re a peacemaker and hunger and thirst for justice — and he doesn’t mean just for yourself.) But he gets very specific elsewhere, when he describes what opens to very gates of heaven to us.

He invites in the blessed, he says, because they’ve fed the hungry, clothed the naked, comforted the grieving, visited the imprisoned (I’m betting he included ones housebound by age, sickness, or fear), sheltered the homeless ...

There’s the basic message, before it got cocooned in millennial accretions, the sticky filaments of theology. You’ve been given gifts, says his persuasive voice. Now, do some re-gifting! It’s not your theology; it’s what you do that proves you really love God.

A have a treasured friend whose whole life speaks re-gifting, and never more than at Christmas. I taught him as a teenager 40 years ago, and now he’s a middle-aged man, a granddad, re-gifting still. Here’s an excerpt from his Christmas note to old friends, teachers included:

“Hi guys,

“I spent Christmas afternoon with our homeless brothers and sisters on the streets of Philadelphia. I gave out hiking socks, oranges and cash to as many folks as I could. Everyone was grateful for the help.

“One guy stood out. His name is Kevin, he is an army veteran. He was sitting on a bench on 18th street wearing a Santa hat with jingle bells on his combat boots and singing Christmas carols. He went on at length about the injustices of the times and how he will someday be a lawyer and make a difference. I had to excuse myself to move on, as he was not running out of material. 

“As I left him he said ‘be careful young Jedi,’ then later, ‘Read the Bible, it is very calming.’    

“The young Jedi thing is confusing to me but it’s Christmas. Hope all is well with you guys.”

I wrote back. 

“Well, Frank, at this point one might  quibble with the word “young,” but a Jedi knight you are, son, moving through the world and, in your quiet way, doing great good — as you did for Kevin, God bless and comfort him.”

Of course Frank’s a Jedi! He’s waging war against dark forces with the best of Light Sabers: the unbeatable power of Love, God-gifted to us, re-gifted by us. 

Hurray for Frank! And hurray for you, friends, as you take up that saber and fight the good fight. Don’t doubt that the Force is with you — the force that showed Itself in Jesus: the force of Infinite Love.

Jim Atwell is a Quaker minister who worships in Cooperstown.