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Christmas: A glimpse of what faith feels like Believing: Be it in Santa or in a personal Creator, faith is the most radical of all human experiences.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Belief can be nurtured by family, friends, religious and cultural institutions, but the moment of revelation - of claiming a significant personal relationship with one's Creator - remains a radical event.

A hush descends on the world. A cold night, shepherds huddled together near their flocks on the hill. Suddenly a dazzling black angel carrying an urban African-American girl too ill with a fever to attend the Christmas pageant appears and breaks the silence with the words, "Fear not!" The shepherds, who had been terrified and cowering, now lower their arms and look up as they hear "ten million angels the sizes of children" sing "Glory to God in the highest!" These familiar words and associations evoke the timeless Christmas story, here told with fresh ideas and a new spirit.

Well, why not?

Is this a perversion of the traditional Nativity story or a newly inspired vision that we are blessed to have shared with us? Is a beautiful angel "as tall as the night" appearing at an apartment house window believable or laughable, a convincing apparition or the figment of the foolish imagination of its author, Walter Wangerin Jr. ("Probity Jones and the Fear Not Angel," Augsburg, Illustrated, 32 pages, $17.95)?

Why are there so many religious institutions in every village in America rereading the Christmas story at this time of year and making it the focus of special pageants, concerts and services? Why do we hear carols and hymns composed for sacred use wafting through secular malls and supermarkets? And when did Santa Claus, with the promise of presents for all, get attached to the unlikely story of an unwed Jewish mother birthing the "Son of God" in a small town in the Middle East?

Start with Santa Claus. The intriguing story of his entrance on the scene of American culture is wonderfully chronicled in Stephen Nissenbaum's new book "The Battle for Christmas" (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, Illustrated, 381 pages, $30).

Nissenbaum, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, had a childhood fascination with the idea of Christmas. In the preface, he recounts a Christmas when he gathered some of his toys in a sack and tried to give them to other children, although this ritual was outside his religious and family experience.

Nissenbaum connects the pagan roots of the solstice festival with European Christmas celebrations, both associated with feasting and the momentary inversion of the established social order. Despite Puritan attempts to outlaw Christmas in America, by the early 19th century the secular nature of its revelry had become problematic in sprawling New York City.

Santa Claus appears to have been devised by the Knickerbockers, a small group of wealthy aristocrats, to provide a cultural counterweight to mob rowdiness. Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (1822) turned the Santa figure from that of a bishop dispensing judgment into a benevolent plebeian, thus insuring a more universal appeal.

Controllable festivity

Materialism and consumerism, Nissenbaum concludes, are associated directly with the creation of this "new domestic Christmas," which succeeded in connecting carnival with commercial gift exchange and helped to integrate the social classes into a shared and more controllable festivity. But the question of whether or not Santa Claus exists (answered in the 1897 New York Sun editorial "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus") brings back the struggle within skeptical human nature concerning the dreariness of life without faith and mystery.

The realization that Christmas has always had a secular side may be comforting to many. Modern American festivities are no more commercial than those of a hundred years ago. But questions of belief in Santa Claus awaken questions of belief in God. They unmask in us a tremendous longing for God to find us no matter how many Christmas cards, presents, or traditions we fling in the way.

Returning to Probity Jones, part of the underclass that the Knickerbockers would have feared, the reader discovers a child embraced in a transcendent vision in which God invited her to a Christmas pageant she thought she was going to miss.

She tells her mother what has happened: "Oh mama, the angel of the Lord came down and carried me off to Bethlehem, and Jesus was born, and I was there. ..." The simplicity of the tale and the beauty of the illustrations (by talented Tim Ladwig) captivate the reader in what promises to be a new Christmas classic.

Probity Jones invokes that other Christmas, the one in which an angel is so powerful she has to say, "Fear not," - the one in which everything has been turned upside down, for we are led there by a child. This child reveals a God who is bigger than the problems of our beleaguered cities, one in whom mortals could actually hope.

The job of the church, the temple, the mosque, is to be the repository of belief. No matter how lapsed, those raised in these traditions expect the right to attend when they wish - if only for weddings, funerals and high holy days - and pick up where they left off. No matter how long they wait, when they show up there are certain expectations. They do not expect the gathered faithful to have lost their belief. They look to their religious leaders for a manifestation of commitment and faith.

But how does one arrive at the point at which one can claim belief in God as one's own? Has humankind created God just as it has created Santa Claus, a mute benign entity? Or does God really exist, beyond our doubts and fears? And if God exists, then does God still speak directly to us?

The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff addresses that "off the wall" topic in his probing "reflections on the claim that God speaks," in "Divine Discourse" (Cambridge University Press, 326 pages, $18.95). Wolterstorff defines his topic as distinct from divine revelation, and notes that reading Scripture to discern what God is saying is not current practice in contemporary academic circles.

He refers to the idea of God speaking as "audacious, but common," yet receiving scant attention from philosophers. Beginning with the riveting story of Augustine's fourth-century conversion, Wolterstorff's rigorous discourse finally takes up the question whether we - "intelligent, educated, citizens of the modern West - are ever entitled to believe that God speaks."

Personal journey

Using the example of the experience of an acquaintance whom he calls "Virginia," the author concludes that this is possible. Yes, Virginia, you are entitled to believe - even in the late 20th century - that God speaks.

We half believe, half disbelieve. We are at war with ourselves and with the many voices that have formed us. Finally, we cannot just receive our belief from someone else. No matter how good they are or how faithful, we are, each of us, on our own journey with our Creator.

Christmas provides the world with a glimpse of what faith might feel like. Only when we are ready will we be open to the radical nature of belief, this most wondrous mystery of existence. Maybe if we could just hear the sound of 10 million angels singing. ...

Victoria R. Sirota, an Episcopal priest, is vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore. She holds a doctorate in music as well as a master of divinity degree. An organist and university music teacher before ordination, she has written widely about creativity, theology and music.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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