Christmas 2023 Retrospective, Part II. Conversation With Grandchildren

Our son-in-law’s mother suggested we take our grandchildren - Addie, age 15 and Henry, age 12 - to their first Christmas Eve service. They had never before been exposed to any church or religious teaching. My wife, Gigi and I thought is was a good idea (though neither of us practices any religion). Gigi came out of a fire and brimstone Methodist upbringing in WV and became significantly repelled by it. I was NJ born Jewish, became a bar mitzvah and was confirmed. Around age 25, I was baptized by my friend the Episcopal rector where my first wife was organist and choir director. I sang in her choir and was regular acolyte for the early communion service each Sunday. The hymns stirred my soul, as did the readings of Cranmer’s “Book of Common Prayer”. Its replacement left me flat and significantly contributed to my disaffection. It spared me later having to depart when the Episcopal Church left doctrine aside in favor of social activism and “therapeutic Christianity”.

Despite our non-practicing status and important doctrinal hesitancies, Gigi and I still regard churches as at least aiming at decency. Since Addie and Henry’s knowledge of them and their history were entirely lacking, we thought taking them would a desirable forum for a family gathering - so we all went to a nearby Roman Catholic church, as the other grandparents are regular congregants.

We attended a Christmas Eve mass. It was pleasant enough. Among our group, of course, only they and our SIL received communion. The church was packed, SRO. Neither the music nor the pageantry were up to the standard by which I was spoiled at St. Thomas Episcopal in Elizabeth NJ around 1969. The point all this is leading up to is the conversation I began with Addie and Henry as we left the sanctuary after the mass concluded. I asked them if they had ever attended a mass before and if they knew what it was. They said ‘no’, they had no idea. I briefly said that the service was a ritual meal and offered them a more complete explanation following our traditional Christmas Eve fondue (prepared authentic Swiss style my yours truly) at our house - if they were interested.

Thus, after being a bit stuffed by fondue, I asked the kids if they wanted to hear the full story of the mass we had just attended. They both said ‘yes’ with enthusiasm and we went off to the family room together. Guided by my own questions when I was their ages, I approached them in the belief they could understand what I was about to say. I began by telling the story of the Passover when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and that the Jews still celebrate this every year with a ritual meal called a seder. I went on to tell a few of the central beliefs of Judaism, including expectation that a Messiah or Savior would appear, under circumstances foretold in the beautiful words Isaiah (at least in the King James Version).

I went on to briefly tell of the preachings of the rabbi, Jesus, in Israel under Roman occupation and gave a short insight into both the religious (Pharisees and Sadducees, Herod)) and political tensions (Zealots, Pilate) at work at the time. Long story short, I told how Jesus became known as Messiah to his followers and held a traditional seder with his disciples. There, he spoke of his coming doom and asked those present to eat the blessed unleavened bread and drink the blessed wine. He said that they were to be consumed as representative of his body and blood, in remembrance of him. I went on to describe the crucifixion and resurrection which followed in the next days. These are the central beliefs of Christians today. Thus the mass regularly offered in Christian churches is a celebration of God having offered salvation to humanity through His begotten Son, Jesus the Messiah. I explained the Nicene Creed.

Next came a harder explanation, I thought. How to explain to post-modern teenagers from just what we need to be saved? Remember, this entire discussion was unplanned and extemporaneous. What I did was begin with the fact that their lives are very busy (and they are, with after-school activities - sports, cheerleading, etc. - literally every day; always on the go. As well, their minds are even occupied by cell phones/media at every possible moment. I explained that this way of living can be a distraction from ever asking questions our ancestors have been asking for as long as there is recorded history. I recounted a spiritual retreat I attended about 35 years ago, where a group of men sat together around a fire on a chilly evening; how I immediately thought of my many unknown ancestors who had to work from sunup to sundown to merely feed, shelter and clothe their families; how a few brief moments of fellowship and warmth were likely the only time they ever had to ponder some difficult questions.

I suggested those questions - little asked nowadays by busy, distracted people - were: “Why am I here”? How should I live”? “Where am I going”? “Is there any meaning to my life”? At this point, I gratefully realized how enrapt my grandchildren were. No cell phones, no fidgeting. Eye contact. I went on to say that, maybe in some occasional quiet moments, like lying in bed awaiting sleep, such questions might cross your minds. I recounted how at their ages, I did just that: lay in bed wondering how big was the universe and getting frustrated, saying it must have an end. But it can’t have an end, because what would be beyond the edge of the universe? Is there a God? Religious/spiritual questions like these are a big part of human curiosity about the nature of the universe. It is why we do science. So science and religion are both attempts to understand our surroundings - reality -the human condition and its meaning. They are complementary, not oppositional.

I said how painful it is to live in the knowledge that we are vulnerable - we can be hurt physically and emotionally - and that we are mortal - that we will die. I explained that neither my parents or my grandparents ever had the knowledge, the time, or the desire to talk about such things with me. I had to figure out much of it through reading and studying and that it has been an important and meaningful part of my life. I suggested that this may be an important part of the reason human beings have organized themselves into various religions, so as to look, together in some form of fellowship or belonging, for the answers to these and other questions. I said that maybe it is the existential pain of living in this knowledge which is what we need salvation from. That the alternative to seeking these answers is merely “bread and circuses” (cell phones and social media). I explained that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

I told them regardless of my religious practices, I was an agnostic until only recently. I explained how more scientific explanations about the beginning of the universe, the nature of its laws had made me a theist - a believer that the best explanation is that a God outside the material universe, is the best explanation for existence of the matter which makes it up. This new belief is reinforced by new understanding as to the information necessary for first life to arise. The coded information could not have arisen spontaneously through random events. Thus I changed my mind based upon evidence, not blind faith.

I went on to say how grateful I was that they were interested and attentive to what I was trying to explain. I spontaneously heard myself tell them how scarce attention is today, how much static we had to sort through, how valuable attention is. I told them these few moments together were the best Christmas present I had every received, because it allowed me to share some of the most important parts of my life with them and they gave me their full attention. I said it was my “job” as their grandfather to do just that. Such passing down of knowledge in families are an example of how mankind has progressed over the ages and that I was grateful for the chance to do my small part in the cycle of life. I then showed them the YouTube video “Powers of Ten”, which led to a series of questions as to the nature of atoms, elements, chemical compounds, living cells, organisms. Addie said my explanation was much clearer than she had received at school!

Even as I write this, I suddenly feel a corresponding grief, which didn’t arise during the discussion with my grandchildren, my stepdaughter’s kids. I just realized that it was precisely this kind of discussion I have always longed to have with my son, Jonathan now a 35 year-old Ph.D. in genetics/bioinformatics), but which he would never permit. For reasons I still cannot understand, he does not respect me or any knowledge I may have gained. From his earliest childhood, he was oppositional and defiant of me. The best I can come up with is that - despite my best efforts to love him unconditionally - we are caught up in the father - son tension which occupies so much analysis and literature through the ages. It remains the single most painful source of grief in my life.

Some aspects of human interaction seem to skip generations in the cycle of life, despite our best efforts. I guess I must accept that’s how it is in my family and celebrate the role I have


Thank you for this . I love your post’s . What a wonderful gift your grand kids gave you .

Pray for an outsider regarding your son .

Mark 6:4
A prophet is not without honor accept in his own home town and among his relatives and in his own household.


Great job gramps!

Side note: You touch on one of the great disputes between most Protestants and the RC and Orthodox churches, the concept with the fancy name “transsubstantiation”. You write:

The Orthodox churches, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans (and some others, IIRC) all declare that the bread and wine at mass are NOT merely representative of Jesus’s body and blood, but become his body and blood, retaining only the appearance of bread and wine. The words Jesus uses during his passion do not say the bread and wine represent his body and blood, but IS his body and IS his blood.

Further, the Gospel of John recounts the outrage among many Jews when Jesus explained that one cannot be saved unless one eats his body and drinks his blood. John 6:49-69.

One of my particularly erudite past pastors explained that the outrage stemmed from the specific words Jesus used, that were clearly and unambiguously cannabalistic. A “hard teaching”, indeed.

So, there are Christians who re-enact the Lord’s Supper, relying on priestly hands to effect the change, so that the congregation may, in fact, eat the Lord’s body and drink the Lord’s blood, to qualify us for salvation as Jesus says in John 6:53-58.

And there are Christians who reject this “hard teaching” and treat communion as merely representative. I, as a Roman Catholic, think they are no different from the disciples that abandoned Jesus due to their inability to accept this hard teaching. Funny how that part happens to be John 6:66.


Thank you @pturmel! As the talk was spontaneous, on the fly, I decided to not go into this important issue just then, as I wanted to cover a broad perspective of several worldviews. I have also read of “consubstantiation”, where the sacraments contain both the bread and wine AND the actual body and blood. Now, one might bring out microscopes, etc. in an effort to falsify the assertion. However, it just might be that a few of the molecules which made up Jesus’ body and blood circa 37 AD - if, indeed, some theologians agree there were any left on Earth following The Ascension - just might be found (non-testably) in the sacraments.

At their ages and at their level of beginners’ knowledge, I thought this would be a bridge too far. Thanks, though, for your response. I hoped to give them the rudiments of my Judeo-Christian worldview, allow for other possibilities and introduce them to my own process in seeking out answers, as well as the source my present conclusions. I am pretty sure they sensed the importance of the issues I raised, that they took it in and that further discussion would ensue. Ours really was on a spiritual level - more than merely the interaction of matter and energy. As I have gotten old (er), I literally crave such spiritual, transcendent, moments with others.

Much of my worldview grew out of recovery from addiction(s). Though I am not claiming membership in that fellowship, The original book, “Alcoholics Anonymous” from 1939 states on the concluding page: “Your real reliance is always on God, He will show you how to create the fellowship you crave”. Having given much thought to reliance (“dependency” might be a better word for alcoholics/addicts), this sentence is really central. Most recovering people are spiritual and/or religious to a significant degree. Most have come to a similar conclusion to mine - that all the years I thought I craved substances (or addictive behaviors), what I really craved was fellowship - a sense of belonging to a power greater than self - a group of people which I allow to know the real me, thereby taking the risk I might be rejected.

Much of my worldview derives from the strong belief that it is the acceptance of other people who know who I really am, “warts and all”, which has healed me of addiction. In practice, I share what is real and essential about me and, at the same time, look for opportunities to say the affirming things to others, those which I have longed for, myself, all my life. Another way to put is is “do unto others…”. When I first began doing that, early in recovery, I found that when I complimented someone else for something they said or did, I got a rush from doing that! and felt good about myself for having done so. It marked my transformation from a ‘dry leaf in the wind’ kind of person, to a real human being with agency. I hope my children and grandchildren may arrive at that same point of agency without having to be so broken as I had to be - at the ‘bottom’ of my addictive behavior.


I don’t correct people’s speling as a rool, but in this case, it makes poetic sense as mis-spelled. I think you meant to say “A prophet is not without honor except in his own home town and among his relatives and in his own household.”


Blown away by your post, as always. A wonderful Christmas, indeed.
I ws worried that when you got to explaining communion, your grandchildren might have an “EWW!” reaction. Really if you haven’t grown up habituated to the idea, it IS kinda weird and…stomach turning, at least the belief about trans-substantiation. But your patriarchal storytelling skills saved the day, or rather the evening!

It’s a revelation to me though, that anybody could get as far as their teen years in America without knowing at least vaguely what the Mass is about. It really demonstrates how much the culture has changed.

Lat summer I was very excited when I met a Czech woman who told me she had never learned anything about the Bible or bout religion in her homeland, but she was curious, she obtained a Bible and as she said “fell in love” with it. I felt like I might be talking to one of the 12 disciples: a Christian whose faith sprang straight from the Word! But I assumed her theological virginity was the result of living in a communist-controlled country. Evidently it could now happen here, too.

Thank you for a beautiful and moving essay. The happiest of New Years to you, dear CW!


I forgot to mention that at the end of our discussion, I showed them the Powers of Ten video on YouTube. I did that to both impart how much is now known about the nature of reality, that it is almost incomprehensible by human minds, and that science and religion/spirituality co-exist on parallel tracks in an attempt to understand our place in reality, as well as what it all means.