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.
Perhaps our deepest desires exist for a reason -- because they are meant to be fulfilled. Perhaps we are not tortured by our hopes, but led by them. Perhaps, as Lewis insisted, this story is a "true myth" -- the myth to which all other myths point.
Reassurance about the cosmic importance of common lives -- including our own -- comes in many forms and in many faiths. In various noble traditions, God visits prophets and sages with wisdom and comfort. But in the faith of Christmas, God just visits. A father is appalled. A mother hides a miracle in shame. A son eventually experiences disappointment, betrayal and morality. Yet something extraordinary takes place.
"By normal human standards," says theologian J.B. Phillips, "this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire. It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history."
Being astonishing, of course, does not make something true. The message of Christmas seems scandalously unlikely to us, just as it did to sophisticated Romans at the time. But if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself. If it is true, hope and memory do not end in a gash of earth. God, let it be true.