I often say that my two acts of faith are my garden and my kids. Each is evidence of my somewhat unfounded belief in the likelihood of a better future. One future begins anew each spring; the other is an ongoing, developing promise in the keeping. Once I found any act of faith on my part completely out of sync with my very secular outlook on life, but one Christmas Eve, a few months after I became a mother, all that changed.
We were living in Germany at the time, celebrating the holidays with relatives and my visiting parents.
The Christmas season in Germany is an event to be experienced. It is not just one day; it is an entire month. Instead of the orgy of shopping that defines much of the Advent season in the United States, however, many Germans begin the Christmas celebration early in December with Nicholas Tag (St. Nicholas Day). This is the day that St. Nick visits children (and employees) bearing gifts, and it is the kick-off of a month-long celebration in almost every town square. Almost every town and city has a Christmas market filled with delectable goodies and crafts. Walking through booths covered with Sherenschnitte-inspired gingerbread treats and ornaments is like stepping into winter fairytale land. Most businesses in Frankfurt were closed on Sundays (not just at Christmas), and, even though our German family is pretty secular too, they do enjoy the traditions of the season as much as we do. They introduced us to a wonderful one of their own – each Sunday in Advent we met at their house to light one of the 4 candles and enjoy quiet conversation and tea and baked goodies with each week. It was warm and cozy, and it was the perfect prelude to the most powerful spiritual experience I had ever known.
On 23 December the Christmas Markets came down, and the center of Frankfurt was briefly quiet. Most (not all) stores were closed on Christmas Eve, and some even closed early on the 23rd. This was not my first Christmas in Germany, but it was the first time we had gone into the city for the celebration on the twenty-fourth, and it was not until we came out of the train station that I realized why commerce was brought to a halt that day.
We had boarded the train at our usual stop – the empty end of the line at 4PM. It was almost dark already, but there had been a surprisingly big crowd in our car. Each stop closer to the city had added a bigger crowd, and by the time we rolled into the center of town, we had become a throng on wheels. It was nothing compared to what awaited. On the platform, trains from other parts of town and suburbs were arriving, spilling out their contents until a sea of humanity washed around us.
At first I was very nervous; I was holding my 4-month-old in his snugly, and I was terrified he would be crushed in the crowd. The crowd, however, was happy but not overly boisterous. Perfect strangers smiled at us as we all scaled the stairs up to the street. On the street, surrounded by the massive and festively-decorated but closed retail establishments, the crowd in the subway station suddenly seemed like a small gathering. There were tens of thousands of people flowing towards the old part of the city and to the bridges. Frankfurt is a very cosmopolitan city, but for some reason I was still surprised to see people in muslim skullcaps and yarmulke’s, hijabs and jeans making their way toward the ancient Domkirche (The Roman-built Dome Church) at the center of the Altstadt.
There were a few stands selling hot spiced Glühwein and potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce, and my Dad treated us all to a warm snack as we milled around with this mass of people. A few people bumped us as they moved from one part of the square to the other, but without exception people were smiling. They smiled at the baby, at each other, at their ceramic cups filled with hot spiced wine.
And then it began.
From the Domkirche came first the softest peal of a bell. It grew louder, and the crowd around us began to quiet. Conversations began to cease, and the Domkirche rewarded us with a louder song and more bells. Then, across the river, another church added its voice to the growing chorus. My aunt had explained ahead of time that each of the churches coordinated the timing of their songs so that the different rings never became dissonant, but nothing prepared me for their effect.
Within a few minutes, churches all around us were letting their bells ring, and it wasn’t dissonant, it was hypnotic. Standing in a sea of people off all faiths and no faith, German-born and immigrants, all of whom were almost completely silent and sharing, if only for a few minutes, peace on our little piece of Earth and goodwill towards all. It didn’t matter what path we took to get to that place. It didn’t matter what prism we used to channel that peace, it only mattered that we felt it and felt it together.
I think of that moment every Christmas. For me, the reason for the season is that feeling of peace and goodwill and it is a feeling I search for throughout the year. The events of this last year have made it harder to find, and the event in Newtown, CT made me wonder if it would appear anytime soon again. I even began to wonder if some part of humanity was trying to fulfill part the prophesied Mayan apocalypse.
But then someone mentioned that the apocalypse wasn’t really an apocalypse. According to this person, the Mayans foretold that the world would not end, but would restart. It would be like pressing a giant reset button. I wasn’t sure if this person (possibly on the radio) was an authority on Mayan Apocalypse Gospel, but the idea of resetting seemed appealing, and I began planning my own reset.
A few years ago, when we were scrambling for food and fuel, an anonymous friend stuffed a trio of gift cards in our mailbox, and I decided my reset would be to pay that forward. As I was making my own plan, I stumbled across a similar, grander idea authored by Ann Curry on NBC.
Ms. Curry had tweeted a very simple idea. Do one act of kindness for each person killed at the Newtown school. Everyone. Do twenty-six random acts of kindness.
To me, this missive was like the first peal of that bell from the Domkirche. Even if we don’t get to all 26 (or if we do 27 or 28 not just a memorial but an antidote to despair), each act is another ring of a bell, a joining of another sea of humanity. Each random act of kindness represents a small act of faith that the better nature that that exists within us will triumph. I cling to it as the hope that people of all faiths and no faith will use these deeds to weave a stronger common thread to bind us together. To work for this, I think, is a supreme act of faith, and, while it is founded primarily on hope this morning, it is one I am more willing to adopt.