Christmas at Harvard Divinity School

Cambridge, Ma. -- Advent and Christmas, perhaps even more than other religious holidays, are at first a bit awkward at Harvard, even at the Divinity School where I teach. While custom and the academic calendar combine to maintain the sense that December is a festive time, there is little room for a straightforward celebration of our Christian feasts; indeed, even to wish someone "Merry Christmas!" is an experimental venture, since going beyond the safer "Happy Holidays!" implies either knowledge about people’s religious persuasion and practice, or an (over)confidence that the Christian calendar still counts most. So the various parties, lunches, and dinners celebrate "this season," without further specification. Of course, people do recognize the fact of Christmas, but surely with a sense that other festivals too are occurring. Thus, the Divinity School Multifaith calendar for December lists also Hanukkah (4th-12th), Bodhi Day as one of the days marking the Buddha’s enlightenment (8th, along with the Immaculate Conception), Id al-Adha, an Islamic feast celebrating Abraham’s faith (20th), Yule (21st) as a Wiccan/pagan marking of the winter solstice, the Death of the Prophet Zarathustra (26th) and the beginning of Ghambar Maidyarem, the Zoroastrian feast celebrating the creation of animals. There is certainly room for a definite, decided celebration of the coming of Christ. I had begun Advent by celebrating Mass with a group of Catholic students on the first Sunday of Advent, with a potluck supper providing time for conversation about the meaning of the season and of being-Catholic at Harvard. (There is also an active Catholic Student Center at St. Paul’s Church.) Just last week, I went to the 98th annual Christmas Carol Service at the University’s Memorial Church, where the Harvard University Choir offered a 90-minute celebration of the coming of Christ. The Choir sang Carols, some world premieres, in at least five different languages, and all of us joined in singing familiar carols though (honoring a poignant World War I battlefield tradition) we could sing either Silent Night or Stille Nacht. Readings from Luke and Isaiah punctuated the singing, and the University Chaplain, Peter J. Gomes, concluded the evening with a prayer and traditional benediction. The most remarkable event, though, occurs at the Divinity School. There used to be (so I am told; it was before my time) an Advent celebration of Lessons and Carols, while now we have a quite remarkable spiritual event called "Seasons of Light." This very popular mid-December event invites members of every religious (and humanist) tradition at the school to contribute images, rites, and words expressive of light to the approximate 90-minute celebration. This year the event included: a young woman entering the chapel bearing a wreath of lights on her head, honoring Sankta Lucia; Jewish blessing and songs, a poem by the Unitarian-Universalist Margaret Gooding, the traditional plainsong chant, Lucis Creator Optime, a sura from the holy Qur’an, readings from Rumi, the Persian mystic poet, a Native American prayer, words by the Wiccan writer and thealogian Starhawk, a Tibetan Buddhist poem, the first vision of Joseph Smith, verses from the nearly 3000 year old Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, a poem by Mary Oliver, verses marking Kwanza, and yes, verses from the Gospel according to Luke. Songs and musical interludes, most notably by Bach, fill out the community’s time in reflective meditation, in the candle/oil lamp-lit space. The program book is graced on its cover by verses from the Iliad: "Stars, crowds of them in the sky, sharp / In the moonglow when the wind falls / And all the cliffs and hills and peaks / Stand out and the air shears down / From heaven, and all stars are visible / And the watching shepherd smiles." The preface explains that the purpose of the event is "to honor the mystery of the swelling darkness around us by kindling the flames of several traditions represented in the HDS community." Today Harvard is a large and complicated university wherein many activities and ways of acting do seem, and probably are, devoid of any intended Christian meaning. Even at Christmas, the Divinity School does not return to its Christian roots. But hesitation about voicing a Christmas greeting is clearly not merely a turn to the secular; it offers an opening, in Harvard’s diverse environment, to the wide range of religious possibilities lived by our neighbors. Harvard, it turns out, provides a place where, for those who dare, Christian roots can be rediscovered and celebrated, by people with their eyes wide open to other paths and lights, where many religions -- and spiritualities -- find a home, but no one gets a privileged, reserved spot. What might seem dark and hopeless, outside the Church as it were, may also appear, on second glance, a place where light is reflected in the darkness, and hope abounds. There is no need for a Catholic at Harvard to be less Catholic, less total in commitment to Christ; it is just that "being-Catholic" here really does, more than in most situations, expect of us that we live out "being-catholic" as well.
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