How a non-Christian learned to appreciate Christmas

Since my childhood, I’ve had a bit of an odd relationship with Christmastime. Mind you, what Christmas actually represents (or is supposed to represent) was never the issue. Growing up in a Baha’i family, we respected and honored the personhood of Jesus Christ. I was introduced to Jesus’s life and teachings in Baha’i Sunday school, in fact, and later on in life discovered that the Baha’i scriptures are filled with passages honoring Him. During my elementary school years, my mother insisted I take part in the annual Christmas pageant, a responsibility I begrudgingly accepted, even as my Jewish classmates were conspicuously free to sit it out. This was the case even as we had no Christmas tree in our home and didn’t exchange presents (we had our own Baha’i holidays, after all). “People need to know that Baha’is believe in Jesus”, my mother insisted.

On the other hand, every year as the holiday approached, Christmas served as a reminder that I didn’t quite fit in. Like many kids whose parents came from abroad, the awareness of difference set in at a young age. I was a brownish kid with dark eyes and an unruly mop of coarse black hair. My clothes were slightly odd, and my lunch box contents even odder. The holiday felt like the sum total of everything that made me different, with reminders everywhere — Christmas lights strung up on every house, Christmas movies on TV, Christmas songs on the radio — that we were just different.

I am hesitant to say it, but as an adult, I still find much of this time of year unbearable. It’s not the feeling of being different, per se, but more so the fact that Christmas in much of American culture has become a vulgar monument to materialism. The cacophony of TV commercials, the aggressive driving on the highways back and forth to the malls, the scramble to catch the hottest post-Thanksgiving sale — it all just makes me want to withdraw and stay inside. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to point out the irony that the anniversary of the birth of Christ, who angrily confronted the money-changers and demanded dignity for the poor, is now commemorated by a mad, collective dash to buy new plastic toys and electronic gadgets.

In recent years, however, I’ve discovered a way some people celebrate Christmas that is somewhere in between religious devotion and rampant consumerism. I sense it was the way more people in this country marked the occasion in the past, before some of the more materialistic elements took over. I would describe it as this: Christmas as a symbol — whether religious or secular — of love, hope, and peace and earth.

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Abdu’l-Baha speaking of Jesus Christ in 1912


I’m too late to share this for the Easter holiday, but I figured it was still worth it. I came across this beautiful passage recently reading the book The Promulgation of Universal Peace, a collection of talks given by Abdu’l-Baha a little more than a century ago.

During Abdu’l-Baha’s journey through Europe and North America in the early 20th century, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ were a common topic. That may seem strange given that the whole point of Abdu’l-Baha’s trip was to introduce Westerners to a new faith and a new spiritual message. But seen in the context of the Baha’i Faith’s core teaching — that all religions are in fact reflections of a single spiritual truth, and all human beings are members of a single family — the fact that Abdu’l-Baha tended to talk in terms familiar to a Western audience makes a great deal of sense.

In any case, here is Abdu’l-Baha speaking to a small group of listeners in Brooklyn in 1912. (With some abridging by me*.)

The divine Prophets came to establish the unity of the Kingdom in human hearts. All of them proclaimed the glad tidings of the divine bestowals to the world of mankind. All brought the same message of divine love to the world. Jesus Christ gave His life upon the cross for the unity of mankind. Those who believed in Him likewise sacrificed life, honor, possessions, family, everything, that this human world might be released from the hell of discord, enmity and strife. His foundation was the oneness of humanity. Only a few were attracted to Him. They were not the kings and rulers of His time. They were not rich and important people… But their hearts were pure and attracted by the fires of the Divine Spirit manifested in Christ. With this small army Christ conquered the world of the East and the West. Kings and nations rose against Him. Philosophers and the greatest men of learning assailed and blasphemed His Cause. All were defeated and overcome, their tongues silenced, their lamps extinguished, their hatred quenched; no trace of them now remains. They have become as nonexistent, while His Kingdom is triumphant and eternal.

The brilliant star of His Cause has ascended to the zenith, while night has enveloped and eclipsed His enemies. His name, beloved and adored by a few disciples, now commands the reverence of kings and nations of the world. His power is eternal; His sovereignty will continue forever, while those who opposed Him are sleeping in the dust, their very names unknown, forgotten. The little army of disciples has become a mighty cohort of millions. The Heavenly Host, the Supreme Concourse are His legions; the Word of God is His sword; the power of God is His victory.

Jesus Christ knew this would come to pass and was content to suffer. His abasement was His glorification; His crown of thorns, a heavenly diadem. When they pressed it upon His blessed head and spat in His beautiful face, they laid the foundation of His everlasting Kingdom. He still reigns, while they and their names have become lost and unknown. He is eternal and glorious; they are nonexistent. They sought to destroy Him, but they destroyed themselves and increased the intensity of His flame by the winds of their opposition.

Through His death and teachings we have entered into His Kingdom. His essential teaching was the unity of mankind and the attainment of supreme human virtues through love. He came to establish the Kingdom of peace and everlasting life. Can you find in His words any justification for discord and enmity? The purpose of His life and the glory of His death were to set mankind free from the sins of strife, war and bloodshed…

…To be a real Christian is to be a servant in His Cause and Kingdom, to go forth under His banner of peace and love toward all mankind, to be self-sacrificing and obedient, to become quickened by the breaths of the Holy Spirit, to be mirrors reflecting the radiance of the divinity of Christ, to be fruitful trees in the garden of His planting, to refresh the world by the water of life of His teachings—in all things to be like Him and filled with the spirit of His love.

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*For the full passage, see here.

Note: In the process of writing this I learned that this particular speech was given the day after Abdu’l-Baha arrived by boat to America from Europe. A historical chronicle of this particular day in his journey is here.

Seriously? Yes, of course Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

I recently became acquainted with the story of Larycia Hawkins, a professor at a Evangelical Protestant college here in the U.S. who was suspended for publicly asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. What I found particularly remarkable about this story wasn’t what it revealed about the current state of free speech on college campuses, currently a red-hot subject of debate. What was more striking was that, apparently, many people somehow believe that Christians and Muslims worship different gods.

Here’s how one particular article about Hawkins kicked off:

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? It’s a question that has bedeviled theologians and everyday believers for centuries.

I almost lost my souvlaki sandwich reading this sentence. Have theologians really been debating this for centuries? If so, then shame on them for such a massive waste of time. Continue reading