I field many questions when I’m home for the holidays. The lightning round began this year on Christmas Eve sometime between the salad course and the appearance of the seven fishes. There were no bonus points. As I stood to clear plates smeared with Caesar dressing someone asked, “Why aren’t we Jewish?” My siblings and their partners looked at me expectantly. “No, it’s a real question. I can never get an answer from anyone. Jesus was Jewish, right? We follow him, so why aren’t we Jewish?”
Forget the intricacies of the Incarnation or the mind-boggling truths of the Holy Trinity. She was merely asking why we’re Christians. Simple enough, right? Amidst the scraping and piling of dirty dishes I managed an answer about Messianic expectations and group identity in the first century. “Oh. That doesn’t sound complicated. Huh.” From my post at the kitchen sink I heard some conspiratorial whisperings. There were more questions to come.
I actually like these question and answer sessions, though the questions never come from my own family members, not at first. For some reason it’s always someone’s partner, fiancé, or girlfriend who breaks the metaphysical ice. It’s not that my family is disinterested, but I think they’re embarrassed to ask. Or maybe they think they need permission, as if by raising a question they would be uprooting the foundations of the faith I hold – that we hold – however tenuously.
Still, as soon as one person dares to ask, the floodgates are thrown open and the deluge begins: Are Catholics Christian? So what is a Protestant then? What’s the least amount of things I can believe and still be called a Catholic? What about the Long Island Medium – do you believe in that? What happens when we die? Do you think that hell is real? What about Sam – how can you explain why she died? Was it her ‘time’?
Sam – Samantha – died in her sleep in her early twenties and since then my siblings – her friends – have desperately sought to find some meaning in her death. Nothing so far has satisfied them – not psychic mediums, not endless worrying, not spiritual platitudes like ‘God just wanted another angel.’
“Why did God take her?”, my brother asked. We had passed from 20-questions to something more profound, personal and complicated.
Death lingers at Christmastime – we all still feel keenly the loss of an older generation whose places at empty folding chairs have been filled by new faces, new names, new young lives. Christmastime is also Sam’s birthday and I watch each year as my younger siblings figure out how to sneak out of Midnight Mass to gather with friends to remember her. I try to answer their questions as best I can and without any haughtiness, as if I know better than they do. The truth is I don’t know better. But I do know something: I know deeper the better God, He who comes into the world each December.
At Christmas I’m never more aware that life and death are closely intertwined for us and for the faith we profess. But it can be hard to bring the imperceptible truths of the Incarnation and Resurrection we sing about in quaint carols to the palpable pain we feel when we lose someone we’ve seen and held. It’s no wonder my siblings ask why; I do, too.
A professor of mine once told me, ‘We’ve got to give God a better name than we often do.’ I haven’t much theological education, but I know what I know: I know God through a deep relationship that has developed over time. I don’t know the answers to my family’s questions any better than they do; I simply know deeper the better God, the God who isn’t playing games with us, but rather loves us, who can do nothing else but love. God—Love—cannot be the source of pain or fear they feel. I know that.
“I don’t think God ‘took’ Sam,” I said to my brother. “I think God received her. God doesn’t pluck people out of this world because it is his or her ‘time.’ Not the God I know. Not the God of Love.”
He looked at me, unsure.
“But I don’t love like that,” he deadpanned.
Yeah, no kidding. Tell me something I don’t know.
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