With Christmas just days away, I find myself thinking of it, not just as an occasion for commercialized sentimentality, nor even as a purely sectarian celebration, but as the closest thing I know to a universal holiday.

Jesus comes into the world the way every human being comes: as a naked, helpless baby. He is born into a family without prestige, power or great wealth, and his birth takes place in the humblest of circumstances, in a stable amid animals. This matters, because it presages his care for the lowly and outcast during his ministry, and it symbolizes God's love for those who are the least upon the earth. It is poignant that cows and donkeys see the Prince of Peace before the wise men or anyone with power. In its broadest interpretation, this story speaks to humanity.

Whether you experience Jesus as divine or not, the story of the baby come to bring peace and compassion to all is hard to resist. And stories carry a deeper truth than mere factuality. Who has not been inspired by a fictional character or prompted to action by a story? It is the stories we live by that form our ideals and can guide us in making moral choices. What we admire is a reflection of our values.

I'm reminded of Charles Dickens' wonderful paean to Christmas and the human brotherhood it celebrates, "A Christmas Carol." Christianity still held unquestioned hegemony in Victorian Britain, but Dickens' view of the holiday, as expressed by Scrooge's nephew Fred, is appealingly universal:

"'There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,' returned the nephew. 'Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!'”

The phrase in that speech that strikes me most strongly is "fellow-passengers to the grave." We have only a short time here — a mere moment in which to be kind to those around us, to bless life where we find it, to feel awe and wonder at the goodness and beauty in the world. How can we dare to take it for granted? How waste a precious second on pettiness, entitlement, resentment, self-righteousness?

The child of Bethlehem comes to remind us that love rules all of creation, and that we are, willy-nilly, caught up in that love. Our refusal to align ourselves with it only causes suffering to us and to others. We have the choice to cooperate, to relax our need to know and to control, and to swim in the love that is the ground of our being like fish in the living ocean.

Merry Christmas to all.