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