Stories about Christmas usually fall into two categories: the struggle to preserve or expunge its religious roots or efforts to demonstrate the holiday's “true” meaning through selfless acts of generosity toward others. They have their place, and this column includes worthwhile examples of both.
This year, however, a third kind of story is especially important – a story made all the more crucial because of society's seeming determination to ignore the most important Christmas message of all.
But first things first . . .
With “Christmas” regularly replaced by the supposedly more inclusive “holidays,” it will surprise no one that the big green tree in the lobby of the new city-county building -- whatever it's being called – is bereft of religious symbols. No baby Jesus. No angels harking or singing. No supernatural star. Just snowflakes, white balls and red garlands.
Well, OK. We all know people of many faiths or none visit Citizens Square. Don't want to offend them or give some busybody or the ACLU a chance to accuse Mayor Tom Henry of trying to establish Christianity as the city's official faith. Right?
But until someone pointed it out the other day, it had not occurred to me that the three-dimensional piece in the Citizens Square lobby by local artist Dianna Thornhill-Miller might be considered especially religious. On the other hand, if a manger and angels on a tree can be said to violate the Constitution, why not a squatting fat guy who happens to look a lot like Buddha, the religious icon of hundreds of millions of people worldwide?
Normal people, of course, would simply interpret Thornhill-Miller's "Takaoka" as she intended: a tribute to Fort Wayne's Japanese sister city, its culture and history. "I would be dismayed and upset if (it) were to be misrepresented as a piece of religious work," she said.
"The piece of art was displayed as a welcome to guests who came from Takaoka this fall," agreed city spokesman John Perlich.
Thornhill-Miller said the prospect of controversy may cause her to remove the sculpture, which is on loan. But that would be unfortunate as well as unnecessary -- as unnecessary as removing the Ten Commandments Allen County courtrooms or pictures of churches from public buildings.
Christians should be able to enjoy fine art depicting various religions or cultures. So why can't we celebrate Christmas -- which is also a national holiday, remember -- with equal generosity?
In a sense, that is exactly what the good people of Pine Hills Church are doing. A year ago, the congregation at 4704 Carroll Road “adopted” Abbett Elementary School on Smith Street and over the Christmas (“winter”) break will deliver boxes of food to 167 families in what Executive Pastor Steve Shaffer said may be the poorest single school district in the state.
When class is not in session, Shaffer said, many children are denied regularly hot meals. So last weekend several hundred members filled the gym with food they purchased themselves – enough to give each household a ham, turkey and assorted dry goods.
“ 'Tis the season – for love, peace and giving,” Shaffer said, noting that the Christmas food drive is not a feel-good, one-shot effort to be forgotten once the holiday glow fades. A basketball camp, carnival and other events are planned.
But because the food will be distributed to the homes or at school after hours, the effort will not be subject to the usual church-school complications where religion is concerned. In each bag – decorated by a young Pine Hills member – will be a message proclaiming Christ.
“Our desire is to lift the community up,” Shaffer said.
But not even that – as commendable as it is – gets to the heart of the story Americans really need to hear this year.
When nearly 30 children and adults are brutally and senselessly murdered less than two weeks before Christmas, it is easy to allow the season's message of peace, joy and goodwill to become something dark and cynical. Christmas can be forgotten or even cursed as a cruel fraud.
To those who really understand its meaning, however, Christmas has never been about simply helping others or feeling all squishy inside. It commemorates the birth of a child who came to earth to suffer, die and rise again so that all who believe in him will not experience the inevitable pain of this life in the next.
There are those who would reduce Christ to nothing more than a love-thy-neighbor, think-happy-thoughts philosopher. But what good does such drivel do the people of Newtown, Conn.? Only by clinging to the true Christmas message of eternal joy and life can they hope to make sense of the incomprehensible, or find comfort amid tragedy.
"Peace be with you . . . I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."
On Tuesday, I reported that Allen County Commissioner Therese Brown had not yet reported her acceptance of free tickets to the recent “Batman Live” show at Memorial Coliseum to the county's Ethics Commission. But spokesman Mike Green points out that the ordinance requires elected officials to report such gifts in accordance with election law, and Green said Brown will list the contribution on a forthcoming campaign finance report.