WASHINGTON -- For me, Christmas brings images of boxes, not wrapped but valued. At the end of rural road in Kericho, Kenya, there is a compound overrun by playing children. Sister Placida -- a nun whose frenetic temperament belies her name -- raises AIDS orphans. It is a cheerful place, but careful about preserving difficult memories. Sister Placida shows an album of pictures and detailed descriptions of people she has cared for who died from AIDS. The children keep memory boxes, containing photos and mementos of their deceased parents. These acts of preservation seem a kind of desperate protest -- that lives should matter to someone, even when they are short and tragic.
Any thinking visitor is confronted with a terrible prospect. Perhaps the protests are pointless. Some might consider these surplus lives. The dead are remembered sadly, then faintly, then not at all. Generations of the poor briefly walk the earth, then become it -- living and dying under cold, indifferent stars.
But Christmas carries a different message. A child of questionable parentage, born into humble circumstances, in a provincial backwater, begins a short life that ends in an execution. Yet it is somehow the hinge of history. Christmas tilts the universe toward the humble. It asserts that every child, in every stable, deserves angel choirs and the tribute of kings. It means that no life is too minor to matter; that the stars are warm and sheltering; that desperate prayers are heard and heeded; that every quiet, unnoticed death disturbs the cosmos; that memory boxes filled by children hold relics of eternity.
It may, of course, not be true. I'll own up to occasional doubt. We have learned to be suspicious of our deepest longings. It is a human tendency to project our hopes into the universe, to create myths that fill a need for meaning. Christmas is the grandest of myths. But it may be pie in the sky.
It was C.S. Lewis, however, who responded: "We are afraid of the jeer about 'pie in the sky.' ... But either there is 'pie in the sky' or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced." I also admit to doubt about my doubts. Precluding a hope, just because we hope for it, is not rationality, it is a prejudice. It is also a human tendency to hug our despair.
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