WASHINGTON — I once told a favorite pastor of mine that I liked him because he wasn’t too pious.
As soon as the words were out there, I wondered if I should have just kept my mouth shut — I’m not good at that — since he might have found my compliment offensive. After all, many priests aspire to being pious, which can be defined as “devoutly religious” or “prayerful.” This would seem to be part of a cleric’s job description.
But this priest ratified my original intuition by saying thanks. He knew I had in mind the other definition of pious, “making a hypocritical display of virtue.” I am always skeptical of those who present themselves as very holy and righteous. Their lack of humility blinds them to the sins that should matter to us most — our own.
The other thing about my priest friend is that he is a very cheerful man and thus never went in for the deadly seriousness that some pious people use as a battering ram against fun, laughter and joy. If religious faith isn’t about joy, there’s no point to it.
You can make the case that Christmas is the religious holiday best suited for those who are skeptical of piety. If you put aside television ads for BMWs and the like, it’s the most humble holy day and the one closest to where people live. It’s astonishing to have a religious celebration of God as a helpless child. The idea of God being self-effacing enough to enter such a state is revolutionary. And, yes, babies are incapable of piety.
Or consider “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” my favorite Christmas song. It was discovered and perhaps partly written by John Wesley Work Jr., the son of a slave and the earliest African-American collector of spirituals and folk songs who spent much of his professional life at Fisk University. The song embodies a joyous demand, much as a movement makes demands on its loyalists. One lyric tells us: “Down in a lowly manger our humble Christ was born.” Three things about this: The manger is lowly, Jesus is humble, and (in most versions, at least) he’s “our” Christ. Power and affection flow both ways.
Christmas also inspires a certain theological humility, or it ought to. The birth story appears in only two of the four Gospels, and the tellings are different. Luke describes the shepherds, the angels and the manger while Matthew introduces the wise men, who go to a home, not a manger.
That popular devotion merges the two narratives together should not offend us. It’s important to learn from what the theologian Harvey Cox calls “people’s religion” and to examine not only “what is written, preached or taught,” but also “the actual impact of a religious idea on people.” Cox is hard on his fellow liberals who look down condescendingly upon the religious faith of those whose side they usually take in social struggles. “Those who support justice for the poor cannot spit on their devotions,” he wrote acidly in his book “The Seduction of the Spirit.”
In fact, more than any other religious holiday, the widespread celebration of Christmas arose from popular demand. The holiday has been highly controversial within Christianity and celebrating it was once illegal in New England. The Puritans had some decent arguments that the day was a form of idolatry and paganism that could be traced back to ancient Rome and had little scriptural support. The pious Puritans also didn’t much like all the raucous revelry its celebration entailed. It was not until 1870 that President Ulysses Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday.
Might it quell the kerfuffle around the “Christmas wars” if we acknowledged that the original war on Christmas was waged by very devout Christians? Of course not, because the controversy is about politics and television ratings, not religion.
Still, I cannot go with those who simply see Christmas as a winter solstice celebration under another name. There is a radical intuition about God in that manger (even if it’s only in one Gospel). And nearly every Christmas story comes back to liberation and salvation, compassion and the quest for second chances. That’s true of Dickens’ tale about Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s true of It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s true of the lyrics of “Good King Wenceslas” (“Ye who will now bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing”).
And if this sounds a little pious, please forgive me. After all, it’s Christmas.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.
Photo: Brook Ward via Flickr