Up until this year, Christmas, for my daughter, has been about lights, presents, and eating too many cookies. Well, and Santa too, of course. She hasn’t really asked questions about what we are celebrating or why, but that all changed recently. We were driving in the car and she started talking. I knew something big was coming because we have all of our important conversations while driving in the car.
“What is Christmas anyway, Mom?” She asked.
“Well, it’s the celebration of Jesus being born.” I answered.
There was a pause and then she blurted out, “Who is the baby Jesus anyway?”
Then I paused. Not so much because I didn’t know who the baby Jesus was, but because I wasn’t really sure how to answers all of the questions that would likely come next. I’m not what one would call a religious person. Jim calls himself a “recovering Catholic” and so we have kind of a strange mix of beliefs and traditions in our family. I mean, I have my spiritual theories and beliefs, but I don’t subscribe to any specific religion. I grew up in a home where religion wasn’t discussed much. I’m pretty sure my dad leaned toward atheism and my mom had (and has) her own ideas about God and spirituality, but both of them agreed that they were not fans of any organized religion. They felt like organized religions were the cause of a lot of strife and horrible things happening in the world. We did not go to church. So, as an adult, I guess I am carrying on this tradition of vague spirituality. I am happily stumbling around with a lot of unanswered questions. I am fascinated and obsessed with religious symbols, ideas, beliefs, and any other reading material I can get my hands on, but I don’t really subscribe to or fit in with any particular dogma. I see many religious groups as divisive which I can blame my parents for (Thanks, Mom and Dad!). Not to mention I am always seeking out new things so my ideas about God in general are constantly in a state of flux. In short, my spirituality is evolving. It’s messy, but I don’t think these answers come easily to anyone.
With all of this running through my mind I was worried my answers to her questions wouldn’t be very satisfying. I did not know many of the answers myself. So, I decided to keep it simple and I told my daughter, “Jesus is the son of God.”
She thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Do you know what God looks like? Do you have a picture of him?” I told her I didn’t know what God looked like and that I did not have a picture of him. Then she wanted to know if God was a boy or a girl.
What a can of worms we were opening! I told her some people believed God was a man and some people believed God was a woman, but I thought God was all things and probably looked like all things so he couldn’t be categorized so easily. This was way too abstract for her mind so she corrected me, “No way, Mom, God is a boy.” I didn’t argue. Maybe he is a he. What do I know? I think gender is very limiting in general and with all of the different types of life on our planet it seemed unlikely God would walk around as a man or a woman, but again, it’s all just something we can imagine anyway because nobody has a picture of God to point to and say, “Aha!” Plus, I don’t really think of God as, well a god, I tend to think of him as more of a life force or energy. I’ve never been comfortable with a man in robes sitting on a throne or floating around on clouds smiting people. It just seems too human to me. Life must stem from something bigger than the human mind can fathom. I mean, I can barely grasp the concept of space and infinity. How could I pin down God?
Over the past week or so Tiny-Small has asked every trusted adult she knows if they have a picture of God. Nobody has one, but everyone has their ideas. One person told her if she looked at God she would be set on fire. Spontaneous combustion seemed a bit horrific to imagine, especially for a four-year-old child . If I had been there I would have certainly intervened in the middle of that conversation. Later, as I feared, I heard my daughter telling my mom that she didn’t want to burn up. My mom told her she didn’t think God would set people on fire and tried to explain to her that nobody knows what God looks like so a lot of people have different ideas about it. She also emphasized, “Just because a person says one thing or another that doesn’t make it true.”
Later there was more confusion when someone told my daughter that God brought people back to life. The first thing my daughter asked me was if God was going to bring her Nonie back to life. My heart felt like it was breaking as I looked into her hopeful blue eyes and explained that God wasn’t going to bring Nonie back to life. She looked so worried. I could tell she was wondering why God was so mean. Why did he set people on fire and why didn’t he bring people back to life when he could if he wanted to?
This was all very confusing so I tried to explain, “God doesn’t set people on fire. He loves people. You just can’t see him and that’s why we don’t have any pictures. He doesn’t bring people back to life here on earth, but maybe that’s what happens when you die and you get to see all of the people you love again.” The one thing I am sure of is that God is not vindictive and mean. He is love. I hoped to correct these notions before they became too big in her heart and in her mind. I was starting to realize that if I didn’t start discussing my beliefs and values with her that she would get her ideas about spirituality from other people. That can be a little scary and very confusing to a young child, especially if you talk to someone who wants to put the fear of God into you.
Then she asked the inevitable, “Are you going to die too, Mom?” I told her I would die too, but hopefully not for a long time. Hopefully not until she was an adult. She seemed satisfied with this answer until a few nights later when I was making plans for the future.
“I think we’ll go to Hawaii in a few years. Won’t that be fun?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, Mom, but in a few years I’ll be six. I’ll be grownup and you’ll be dead. You can’t go with me to Hawaii.” She answered with a very solemn face. This was not going as planned. I was in way over my head when it came to death, God, and the baby Jesus.
“First of all,” I said, “you are not going to be grown up at six and besides I’m a grownup and my mom is still alive. I won’t die the moment you reach adulthood.” Fingers crossed.
Yesterday she wanted to know if God lived in the sky because her friend said God lived up in the sky. I told her I didn’t know, but I was pretty sure God lived in everything like the grass, the birds, the lizards, and even inside people. Then she told me, “Lizzie said Jesus was a king. ” Then she asked, “Is he king of all the babies?” I was stumped.
Who is the baby Jesus anyway? I wanted to tell her that mostly he was a teacher because the word “king” has too many connotations and doesn’t feel right to me, but I didn’t. Maybe I still will. Because that’s what I think Jesus was. If you put aside all of the religion and deity stuff Jesus was a teacher who taught us how to live with and take care of each other. He was incredibly insightful and empathic. He knew what he was talking about, but humans are incredibly slow learners. I do, however, have faith we will get there one day. I think Christmas is a yearly reminder on the importance of being good to each other.
I may also need to explain to my daughter that Jesus grew up and became adult Jesus. He didn’t stay a baby forever. He outgrew his “king of all babies” status eventually. Maybe that will make more sense to her, but I’m not sure. It’s all so wide open and I don’t want to make it more confusing than it already is, but maybe I don’t want to be more confused than I already am either. I know I can’t take the easy way out on this one. It’s just too important. I’ll probably need to spend some time thinking about it all so I can explain things better the next time I get the chance.
I hope you celebrate love and family in all of the ways you can this holiday season. I hope you are good to each other. For me that is what Christmas and the baby Jesus are all about. They are symbols of what we should strive to be all year-long: Kind, generous, having faith in the goodness of other people. It’s also about lights, presents, and eating too many cookies. Mostly it’s about love and lot’s of love and then a dash of more love peppered with a visit from Santa Clause.
Merry Christmas! I hope you survive the questions your children come up with about the baby Jesus too or any of your spiritual beliefs for that matter. I wish you clarity, thoughtfulness, and ease of speech in these matters!