Earlier this week, I was in our local library in the little English village where I live. A grandmother had accompanied her daughter and young grandson (probably 2-3 years old) on their trip to pick out a few children's books. Clearly they were in search of seasonal fare. The Christmas lights and jingly music are going full force in the shops. Grandma squatted down to the low area where the children's books are kept and started pulling them out one at a time and thumbing through them, making accompanying comments. As she began to page through a book framed in red, she said "Oh, this book has virgins and things. I don't think we want this one. It's much too holy." She put it back. She pulled out another. "Oh, Teddy Bear's Christmas. This is a good one. Much better."
I'm used to people not being wild about religion. In this country especially there is an undertone of suspicion of Christianity, even though major institutions are cloaked in religious garb, there is still a state church, and my son's local state school will have a nativity play, complete with wise men and a baby Jesus. I enjoy meeting a good atheist now and then (except Richard Dawkins just annoys me). I'm used to Clare's friends meeting me and telling her later "I thought your mum would be really strict and walk around the house with a Bible in her hands shaking her finger at everyone." It can be fun to shatter people's stereotypes, though it does get old sometimes.
I found myself saddened by the scene in the library. Why did this grandma want Christmas without the baby Jesus or the angels' proclamation or the wise men's worship? I don't read these stories literally, but they inspire me to celebrate God-with-us, to claim something deeper, truer, more life giving than teddy bears and candy canes.
I wasn't disappointed in the grandma. I am disappointed in a church that somehow let her down--That didn't offer her meaning and hope at a time when she needed it, or that taught her things that seemed so distant from her sense of the world, or that bored her as a child so much that she vowed she would never force her children to sit through a worship service. Or maybe faith just seems tired and irrelevant or even dangerous, given the press the extremists get.
If I were my extraverted sister-in-law Anne, I would have started up a conversation with grandma and I might know a bit of an answer. I might have been able to tell her why the story of the birth of Christ means something to me, even holds my life together. But I didn't.
I just quietly went over, picked up the rejected book, and checked it out for my son. Call me old fashioned, but holiness can still be something good in my book.
In Advent hope,