Are we to be Wise Ones, with our eyes fixed on the star in the inky night sky, always looking up, each riding on our own camel, swaying under the starry sky?
Or are we to be shepherds, a band of what were surely brothers, who come and go out of the Nativity story as a group?
The story reminds us of the two dimensions of religion – the vertical dimension that links each one of us with what is above us – what some call our Higher Power, God. And the other dimension is the horizontal – the relationships between people, the community.
The horizontal and the vertical.
Christmas is both vertical and horizontal. On the one hand, we are to look up and see Jesus coming down from heaven and entering into the life of the Earth. We are to look up and see the angels gathering to sing, and we are to look up and see the star as it leads to the stable the Christ child lays.
On the other hand, Christmas is horizontal – the gathering of friends and family – over the river and through the woods we go – horizontally out from our homes and hearths to meet one another. It is to see one another again, to break bread together and gather around and sing some songs together.
Christmas has been an uneasy combination of the Christian high holy day of Christ’s birth (the vertical dimension) and the old pagan village Winter festival (the horizontal dimension.)
We call the vertical “the religious” and the horizontal “the secular” and when the religious folks say that we need to remember the true meaning of the season and keep Christ in Christmas, it is because they feel that the vertical dimension of the holiday is getting shorted.
When it comes to Hanukah, those whose tastes run toward the vertical, the religious stories, weave a tale about light in the darkness and faith in God, trying to reconcile these two very different holidays together. Such talk always seems a little forced to me. I do not think that the vertical ladder of meaning between Christmas and Hanukah reach from the same place and go to the same place. These holidays come together in the horizontal. If this is a season of fun and festival, let us leave no one out, and whether it is latkes or Christmas cookies, let’s all have another, and just be glad that we are friends.
Let us keep the X in Xmas: the extra cookies, the exceptional frivolity, the extraordinary festiveness, the exquisite music, the exotic foods from faraway places, the extravagant gifts, the excitement, the expectations, the exorbitant and the exuberant, the expensive, the expansive and all the other forms of excess that makes this season ours. Let us keep the X in Xmas. Let us keep the horizontal dimension.
There is a religious point to all of this. The story of the Nativity is this: according to the Christian story, when God chose to make his presence known on the earth, he did not come as stone tablet, nor as a scroll in the temple, nor as a dictated manuscript. God came to earth not as an idea, or a principle, or a truth to be chiseled in stone. God came not as an article of faith, or a point of doctrine to be disputed and analyzed. God came as a person, as a baby, as a child, as a man. And what do you do with a person? You relate to him or her? You talk with, and walk with, and touch and console, and hold hands with, and laugh with, and cry with, and be with. With. With. With. With. With.
On Christmas we celebrate the moment that God got horizontal with us.