This is another reprint of my favorite personal Christmas stories, those stories that remain in my heart this season.
My departure from organized religion began when I realized “eternal life” was “abundant life”— spiritually abundant. At the moment of epiphany I was sitting on the stage near the altar of our old country church, drafted to play the part of Virgin Mary in the annual nativity pageant. As every year before, the main players, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus (the newest born in the congregation), some shepherds, wise men, and an angel, had paraded down the center isle of the candlelit sanctuary to the stage, now bedecked with evergreens and a back drop of the star-studded skyline of Bethlehem, painted by my mother several years before. We were accompanied by the voice of God: the deep, booming voice of Bill Sheppard, a good friend of my parents and distant relative, reading the Christmas story from the balcony:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled… And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, for there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2: 1-7).
This year there was an additional scene to our standard format in which Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, also had a discussion. God knows how that script ever got into our church, as it was a sterling sample of gnosticism! What were the words? I do not remember, except that Mary was telling Elizabeth that “abundant life is eternal life.” As I read those words (for I was home on vacation from college and had not had time to memorize them), it was as if the Holy Ghost descended upon me. I felt such happiness, such joie de vivre! Eternal life means valuing this physical life, I realized, enjoying the pleasures of liveliness. This is how we enter the state of eternity. Our task is to live as fully as possible!
It is true, we had an unusual church. For this I am forever grateful. The church was founded by Irish protestant immigrants in the late 19th century on a tract of land next to the railroad tracks. The building was simple, built by my great grandfather who is now buried in the cemetery nearby and attended by every generation after. When my dear grandmother died, one of the women took me aside and reminded me that the dead are all around us, that my grandmother had only undergone a transformation, a cocoon releasing a butterfly. At the time, I did not find this particularly comforting, as I wanted the flesh and blood version, but I still remember this woman’s words and now know them to be true. Our church year revolved around the seasons, most of the congregation being farmers. We had Stewardship Sunday in June honoring the land, a church bazaar in the fall after harvest, and of course, this candlelight nativity pageant on one of the darkest nights of the year. Ours was a religion honoring cycles, soil, life.
My revelation was not well received by everyone in the church. (Of course, I couldn’t keep it quiet!) I remember one of the more fundamentalist types telling my mother that this is what happens when you send a kid to college. Although my mother was raised Baptist, she was also educated and liberal minded and buffered a lot between us kids and some of the more conservative members of the congregation. I know she also worried at my increasingly liberal views of Christianity, even up to the time of her death.
She need not have. Could she not understand that my path led me to Jung and to Rudolf Steiner and to others who appreciated the importance of the mystery of the Incarnating Divine? That Christmas before the backdrop my mother painted years before, I experienced the birth of a new consciousness, one that I would spend the rest of my life nurturing.