Editor’s Note: This is written so graphically, you can almost see the seasons changing and taste the flesh and blood.
By Chris Highland
I was born and adopted on Christmas Day. Though I was a rather unwanted present to give away on that cold December day, I was raised to feel the famous day with its famous story was also my own special day. Mom would cook a feast and the dessert was my birthday cake.
The best part was that I would always get two presents from everyone: one for my birthday and one for Christmas! My adopted family made me feel wanted, like a precious present; after all, they named me Chris.
I’ve always enjoyed Christmas because I love the season—the drama of Nature’s earthly and celestial surprises. My most peculiar tradition is to take a hike and climb a tree on the 25th. I have the pictures to prove it, taken by friends and my wife, Carol. Since childhood I’ve enjoyed pulling myself up branch by branch, ascending 30, 40, 60 feet up a fine fir or pine, cedar, oak or juniper. Once up in a tree I am reminded that we’re held by living things and sustained by the life around us. I hear the lesson once again:
See what is not seen—find a perch for a higher, wider perspective.
It’s as if the forest beckons:
Go on, come up, get sappy hands and sticks in your hair – who cares!
Faith used to be a tree for me. It held me; I felt safe; it felt alive and growing. There was green to my God. But the central tree in my faith was not green but ghastly and often gold – a symbol not of life, but of death. The old traditional Christian story rejoices in killing things (in good imitation of God killing his Son and torturing millions of others for eternity “because He loves them”). Faith taught me to kill my ego — “dying to myself”— a virtue of the saints. And even though the bloodstained and denuded tree was dead and held the dead, it was supposed to give life, light and love. In this brutal and nonsensical narrative, a faithful follower is expected to joyfully eat the flesh and blood that hung like raw meat from the branches of a rootless stick of a tree.
See why I climb?
I find it odd, very odd, that Christian tradition moves so fast from birth to death. Advent so quickly becomes Lent. “His coming” melds so fast into “His crucifixion” that a person is left feeling sad that the story is over. It’s almost as if believers can’t wait to take apart the manger to build a cross. The hanging ornament morphs into a person who gets nailed to the trunk. (I can imagine some children getting confused—“Is that Mary, Joseph and the Baby riding a donkey up Golgotha hill as crowds wave palm branches and sing sweet carols?”) One holy week melts right into another and people can’t wait to hop and hurry to Easter as fast as an egg-laying rabbit (now we’re really confused).
No wonder that one incredible (that is, un-believable) fairy tale has spawned and spun off so many magical tales of snowmen and santas, angels and elves. The turning of solstice seems to spin yarns into warm cozy blankets to keep us safely wrapped in childhood.
The Christian story leaves your eyes rolling and head shaking, especially when you’ve been a believer and then (as tenderly as possible) threw the baby out with the baptismal water.
I still like Jesus, for the most part, and I like his story, generally, but strangely enough, I don’t think his story gets told too much. While so much time, energy and money is spent each year on Christmas and Holy Week, the story of the poor, homeless, radical non-Christian is lost. He’s stuck in the manger, up the tree, in a holy hole or heaven. Anything he said about ethics, justice or basic compassion seems boring or turned into cute bedtime or “children’s sermon” tales. The offensiveness of Jesus is conveniently ignored because, as I said to the Presbytery when I left my ordination:
Jesus wouldn’t be welcomed in any churches called by his name. And why would he go anyway?
I know that seems harsh and I actually have seen a few congregations where I can imagine Jesus in attendance —not all of them Christian congregations, I might add.
So, what do we do, we seculars, we apostate infidels, with the baby, the manger, the holiday and the wrappings? We do whatever we can to touch and smell and taste the gifts of Nature and goodness of humanity buried by the ancient tree-killing traditions. Think about the millions of trees and animals that have to die or the forgotten people dying outside in barns and stables and streets who don’t even have a manger for a crib to wrap their hungry children in. It’s not a pretty narrative, but there actually is great beauty surrounding it—naturally. The good beyond the god appears like the wise philosophers
from the East bearing gifts that begin with wisdom itself. We can choose to practice wisdom by doing something, anything, that is just plain good. Why can’t we simply celebrate that? Isn’t that something better, even much better than Christmas?
To appreciate the season again, or for the first time, you have to dig under the piles of packaging and paper. Or climb up and out.
The great irony of Christmas is that we seculars are perhaps the best ones to remind believers what the story really says; that it’s not about some other world above the stars or beyond the grave. It’s not a fantastic story kindled by miracles and magic. The story of Nativity is not the birth of God; it’s about our birth as each one of us is adopted into the human family. We are free to leave the ancient legends, tell our own stories and listen for Nature’s amazing tales written in the storms of winter, the flight of birds, the illumination of moon and stars, the fresh scent of green living things.
If you can’t climb a tree, light a candle. If you can’t do that, do something or say something that will brighten someone’s face, a stranger’s face. Maybe their life, like yours, will feel a little lighter. This isn’t a religious sermon, but maybe it is a secular sermon. I’m guessing you also have one to tell.
Have a good green season!
Chris Highland was a Protestant Minister and Interfaith Chaplain for many years. He renounced his ordination in 2001. He is the author of My Address is a River, Nature is Enough and ten other books. Chris is currently a member of The Clergy Project, the American Humanist Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, while he blogs at Secular Chaplain. He teaches a class on early American freethinkers at the Reuter Center, UNCA. Chris and his (reverend) wife Carol, live in the mountains of North Carolina. To learn more see www.chighland.com.
Photo Credits: By Twice25 – Ghearing family, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96634 ; By TreasureIslandMediaBoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35128623 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Muir_Wood11.JPG
Sequoia sempervirens, Muir Woods National Monument, California, USA / Personal picture taken by user Urban, 2004