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O Night Divine: Observing Christianity

My daughter Mira wanted to come along to Christmas Eve services at Sanctuary Church, but when we got there, she hesitated and asked if she could stay in the car. What if we don’t know the words, she asked. We’ll probably know some words, I reassured her—it was Christmas, after all. But there would also be prayerbooks, just like at Temple. She looked up at me, and we headed in. It had felt disrespectful to attend church with a notepad in hand, so in the foyer I began taking mental notes for my observation assignment. I was participating in a winter professional development course on community engagement, and my homework was to observe a community to which I did not belong.

Mira and I selected candles from a table and found seats. As I watched congregants exchange season’s greetings, I felt self-conscious, twirling what my college roommate described as my Ashkenazi deluxe hair. But having people wish me a Merry Christmas here felt comfortable, comforting even. The rules seemed clear in this explicitly religious space, different from the supermarket check-out line, where I respond in kind to merry Christmas wishes over groceries. I told my daughter about the last time I’d been to church at Christmas Eve, when I was about her age and conducting an interfaith project for my bat mitzvah. I remembered pine boughs draped across the wooden rafters and pews of that 18th-century episcopal church. This space was more barebones, forming around belief and practice.

Antoniazzo Romano, The Nativity, 1480s

As we made our way through O Come All Ye Faithful, I could feel people settling in. O come let us adore him we sang, and Mira whisper-asked why some people had raised a single arm, palms flat and spread. I think they’re expressing that the spirit is with them, I responded—like a testifying thing maybe? I noticed a college student swaying with family members, singing in ex-ul-ta-tion. I had selected Sanctuary for my observation because it was an intentional community that welcomed congregants from all backgrounds. I had wanted to feel out the contours of inclusive Christianity, a phrase some are quick to dismiss as an oxymoron. My friend Christopher, who gave sermons here, reminded me that Sanctuary Church welcomed faith and doubt. I laughed because if most synagogues didn’t welcome doubt, how many people would show up? But I appreciated the invitation of these words, the mention of LGBTQ+ families, and how everyone slid over to make space in each row.

The pastor invited little ones and parents to the front, near two artificial trees, to listen to a Christmas story. As wall screens illuminated a digital menagerie in a manger, a baby in the back of the sanctuary cried. Everyone should pick an animal, the pastor explained, and we would welcome the baby Jesus in character. A little boy got excited: Mooo, welcome! The pastor smiled. Yes, that’s right – you can even be a snake if you want to. He hissed into his microphone: Ssssss…. Welcome, Baby Jessssusssss… We all laughed, he sounded so much like Voldemort. He smiled, relishing his snaky hiss, and I appreciated his playful spin on the supposedly evil creature. Even the snakes can come to Jesus I thought, the Yiddish cadence of my Nana in my head.

Zenobi Strossi, The Nativity, 1433-1434

I seemed to know second and third verses, and wondered if another service might have better fulfilled my homework of visiting an unfamiliar community. Mira’s eyes widened in full tweenhood as we sang about Mary’s immaculate womb and I suppressed a laugh. It was all so visceral–enfleshment, god in skin. On a continuum of Christian-ness, the flesh talk seemed less intense, however, than the liturgy on redemption. The entire world was waiting to be saved. It was a lot – everything hinged on Him, on this day, His birth day. I saw the holiday differently for a moment, a renewal and rebirth through a Baby. An annual fresh chance at salvation—who doesn’t want that?? My grandmother’s voice was still with me.

Someone dimmed the lights when we got to O Holy Night, and the twinkly bulbs on the trees glowed. I have always adored the aesthetics of Christmas, that most American of pseudo-secular traditions, but this softly out-of-tune O Holy Night was less predictable, more alive than Perry Como’s crooning of my youth. I appreciated the sanctuary I was in, community coming together through light, song and warmth. Growing up, my family used to tune the car radio to a holiday music channel and drive around, admiring lights and the living tableaux of families gathered around their trees. Now, as ushers lit candles down the aisles and congregants passed the flame down each pew, I saw myself inside the tableau. The guitarist stopped his strumming, and voices hushed. The night… when Christ was born… candles swayed with everyone’s voices and the twilight mirrored our mood. It felt magical, already a memory glimmering in the room. O night divine we sang, and tears came unexpectedly to my eyes. What was this? I paused, mid-verse, feeling out my deep desire to be a full part of this Christmas Eve, to let go of my observational distance and difference. O my God – I thought. Was I… jealous??

Embracing unbelonging tends to be my go-to—I rarely feel at ease in formal communities. I perch on the edge of chairs, hover at the edge of rooms. In my work as a professor, I am a member of three academic departments, maybe so I can be inside and outside of all of them. Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community was my bible in graduate school; my research requires me to contemplate a community’s fissures and exclusions. Here it was not exactly a mystery: we had sung that this outside included me, among others. Was I always skipping to the outside because of my Judaism, of all things? It was a holy, holy, holy—we were coming to the end of O Holy Night.

Author’s Menorah

Later that night, I thought about my friend Lena, her deep faith that helped her through her daughter’s bone marrow transplant, sickle cells driven from her ten-year-old body over months at the hospital. After my own surgery a year later, Lena brought me supper in a basket because that is the sort of friend, and Christian, she is. She took my hands in my living room and asked if we could pray for my recovery, that I would walk again. I really wanted to say yes, but somehow couldn’t bring myself to pray in that extemporaneous, Christian way. Her offer was its own kind of prayer though, I responded, and we teared up on my green couch. I think I was jealous in a way. On some level, I did wish I could observe Christianity—not as a homework assignment, but in real life. What an odd thing to realize as a lifelong Jew who happily enjoys the rituals of frying Hannukah latkes, dipping Passover charpas and high holy day reflection. Visiting this community threw into relief my minority religious identity, which it is my privilege to rarely dwell on, in part because of its intersection with my whiteness, my cisgender femininity, my class and English-speaking citizenship status. I think my yearning in that moment of swaying candlelight was also about unmitigated inclusiveness, something I have been taught is a seductive and even dangerous fantasy. And something that can be profoundly beautiful, as well.

Maybe this evening was my come-to-Jesus moment I thought in a voice that seemed more mine than my nana’s. Not that I would ‘have’ Jesus exactly, but maybe I could sing about harking the herald angels without that minor note of irony, the double awareness of what these words meant and couldn’t mean for me or others. My daughter and I drove home into the sunset, thinking about Jewish Christmas. I might desire respite from that perpetual feeling of inside/outside, but I knew this awareness would be her gift as it was mine— to witness community forged this way, out of un/belonging.

Naomi Greyser: do you also have a complicated relationship with writing?

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