Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I am joyful. After church my daughter and her boyfriend will join us to cut a live tree, and her friends will join us to decorate the tree and laugh and talk and share a meal and a cup of cheer. And while I’m mindful of my faith, many of the traditions we share have little to do with the story of that babe’s birth in a manger. While we share memories of our church filled with the soft light of hundreds of candles on Christmas Eve, many of us would be stumped if asked why we kill a live tree and bring it into the house with such delight or why we leave cookies and milk for the man in the red suit who finds a way into even those houses that don’t have chimneys.
When my siblings and I were children, our mom bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias, adding the annual volume each year, no matter how little money our parents had, to be sure our information never went out of date. In those white books, embossed with gold print, some of the most worn pages were those that described how people in other countries celebrate Christmas. So while we grew up in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains, we knew that we shared this holiday with people in England and Italy and Germany and Denmark—people who seemed far away but close because of our shared enthusiasm for the babe in the manger who promised hope.
Having grown up in a town that was all white and all Protestant, I didn’t encounter a Catholic until I left home for college. But I am happily married to a Polish Catholic, and because of those pages in my mom’s beloved encyclopedias, I’ve always had at least a partial understanding of how Catholicism differs from my faith. So the only real stretch of understanding for me was moving from my mom’s and my childhood church’s non-alcoholic table to the wine and the bread that embodied the risen Christ.
But I didn’t truly know anyone of a non-Christian faith until I moved to the D.C. suburbs, where my school system closed in September for two Jewish holidays that I knew nothing about. And later, our department hired a Muslim of Pakistani descent, a woman who also knew much more about my faith than I knew about hers. I quickly learned that my colleagues and friends of other faiths often knew more than most Christians about the holidays we celebrate. And I know that on more than one occasion, my questions and curiosity revealed a complete ignorance of their faith that must have astonished them. But I was strengthened in my fight against cancer when a young Jewish woman made me a framed hanging with a tiny scroll and a verse our faith traditions shared. And my life was enriched when the Muslim woman brought a Pakistani meal for our department and explained as she broke bread with us the significance of each dish.
As we begin this month-long, boisterous celebration of our faith tradition, what would happen if each of us took the time to find out something about the traditions of other faiths? What if I turned to that Buddhist whose quiet strength is often greater than my own and asked about his meditation practices? What if I asked an atheist—with genuine curiosity instead of a desire to convert her—how she seeks to understand a world that is often vocal in its rejection of her?
As Twain’s character Huck Finn discovered as he floated down the Mississippi River on a raft with the man Tom, who his culture had taught him was only 3/5 of a human being, we cannot possibly hold to stereotypes when we truly get to know another human being in all the complexities that defy the way we’ve been taught to see them. Every culture and faith has its villains and its heroes. But once we see someone up close—and even learn to call him a friend—we learn that the complexities of human beings are far more interesting than the extremes in which we paint them from a distance.
And even if we live in areas that never allow us to know those of other cultures, the Internet has made the world a much smaller place. I can now see videos—and even chat with—those people in far-away places that I could only read about in my mother’s World Book. The world is now my book. And isn’t that much more interesting?
Advent—for Christians, the word means the coming of the Christ. But what if it were also advent—a coming into place or view—where we begin to come to a fuller understanding of what’s best in us all?
What have you gained or learned from someone of another faith?