My family did Christmas a day late this year. While we were opening presents, Uncle Marker (my brother) pointed out a big spider scurrying away from our gift-unwrapping mayhem, “Watch out girls, there’s a spider behind you.” I smiled at the twinge of fear in his voice and said, “That’s ok, it’s not hurting anyone.”
Kaia, my fearless seven year old niece agreed, adding, “It’s probably just a good spider.” Avalon, who just turned four and was not disturbed in the least by the spider 12 inches from her toes, chimed in, “Yeah, it’s going away from us, too.” Their dad, my oldest brother, got up and walked to the spider, picked it up in his hands, opened the front door and let it go into the front yard.
I remember growing up in this house with it’s tall ceilings and ever-present spider webs. My mom left them there until we were expecting guests or the holidays rolled around, then we’d clear them away. She always said they did a home good and there was no reason to kill them. I may be inventing this memory, but I think I recall her apologizing to the spiders as we swept their homes away.
I used to think she was just being silly, and as a kid and young adult, anytime a spider was in my reachable radius, I’d stomp it before it could even think about crawling on me. But now, an adult living on my own in a spider-friendly home, I too capture spiders in jars and let them loose outside. I too, apologize to them as I sweep away their webs.
Last night, as my brother set one spider free and his daughters were so unafraid and used to such a thing, I was overcome with happiness. My nieces, like any kids, can be sassy and moody, but they really are getting these lessons of gentleness and kindness that my brother and sister in law model for them. They really are becoming such wonderful souls. Sure, they got presents, sure they were excited by that, but this moment with spider felt pretty holy to me, sacred in it’s revelation of sweetness, of lessons passed on from generation to generation.
After all the dishes were cleaned and the wrapping paper stuffed into a recycling bag, and good nights were said, I put on my Christmas playlist to unwind before sleep. “O Holy Night” was the first song to play. I play this song hundreds of times come each holiday season. For years, I’ve listened to this song somewhat guiltily — I’m not a Christian and I am not moved by “Christ is the reason for the season” type sentiments. I don’t think anyone needs to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts in order to be saved. In fact, I’m not down with the whole Christ is our Savior idea — I think that when we feel connected to something, anything that feels more sacred than we do, we are saved. I’m not convinced that Jesus ever existed, and I don’t think it matters if he ever walked the earth or not.
But listening to “O Holy Night” brings me to awe and tears time and again. And when I dab at my eyes I usually giggle to myself and ask, “Why do I love this song about Jesus’s birth so much?” Last night, I finally got around to thinking about my reasons for celebrating this season.
After all these years, I heard these lyrics of the song for the first time: Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease. I actually backed up the track to see if I had heard it right. I thought, no wonder I love this song! It portrays Jesus as a social justice icon, inspirer, and peace maker.
At the same time, the song taps into the desire for the sacred experience of redemption. He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. I love the phrase, a “thrill of hope.” It really is the perfect way to describe how hopefulness feels after dark, weary hours or days or months or years. And I think of how many times in American history alone, someone has appeared and suddenly our spirits felt our own worth: to name a few, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Barak Obama. I get that Jesus has this impact on people, and I have no beef with that, and I recognize that all who bring promise to weary hearts rejoice as justice breaks in a new way over the world.
So on one level, it is about Jesus — whether he lived or is simply a legend, his story has transformed the history of humanity, and by all accounts, he was a total political lefty, more radical than most folks we call radical today, heaping compassion and love on anyone, anyone at all, and believing to the end that loving everyone was the answer to everything. He wouldn’t have hated gay people, he wouldn’t have ever dropped bombs on anyone, and he would have probably swept spiders up in his hands and taken them outside. That’s a message I can get down with.
With this lens, I can see the celebration of Christmas in a new light. For me, this season is a time for me to reflect on, and recommit to, hope, renewal, and justice. It’s also about making love tangible, sometimes as gifts or food prepared well, but also by the time we spend with those we love. With this lens, I will no longer feel silly about loving the song “O Holy Night.” I will let it’s message of sacredness, hope, and freedom wash over me and remind me why feeling ambivalent about celebrating Christmas is optional.