On Mourning, Christmas, and Interfaith Community

Star Ornament

After the tragedy in Newtown, townsfolk gathered together at an interfaith service with Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i prayers. In this moment of great sorrow, we sought solace and inspiration in a gathering that reflects the complex religious pluralism of America in the 21st century.

We do not need to share a creed or dogma in order to share our burdens. Community provides a balm to the believer, the seeker, and the secularist alike in times of trouble. Sitting together, singing together, mourning together, despite theological differences, we are able to experience catharsis, and ephemeral hope.

I feel profoundly grateful to be part of an interfaith families community, a community that allows my family to feel the transcendence of interfaith gatherings on a regular basis. On Sunday, just two days after the Newtown tragedy, we attended the annual Lessons and Carols service for Advent and Christmas. My husband and I sing in the choir, so we found ourselves at the front of the room, looking out at hundreds of parents still in a state of shock, many with arms wrapped around small children bewildered by all of the tight hugging and extra kisses.

In the choir, I stumbled imperfectly through the alto harmonies, and closed my eyes to receive the poems by Mary Oliver and Madeleine L’Engle. But this year, the imagery in song and readings became almost unbearably poignant—the innocence of the baby, the mother destined to lose her son. At the emotional climax, Rich Shegogue, an extraordinary tenor, stood alone, as he does each year, to sing “O Holy Night.” The refrain of “Fall on your knees. Oh hear, the angel voices!” and the alternation of soaring and tender musical phrases, broke open the hearts of many parents. Gazing out through tears, I saw Christians and Jews alike weeping, including our choir director, Rich’s Jewish wife Marci, who must have heard Rich sing this carol hundreds of times before. But never before like this.

In the darkness of the solstice, in the darkness of tragedy, we crave community. For interfaith families, finding community has not always been easy. Some of us have found homes in churches or progressive synagogues, or in Unitarian-Universalist communities, or in the Ethical Society. Some of us have created our own interfaith families communities in order to teach both religions to our children. In an interfaith families community, both Christians and Jews have permission to take solace in the beauty of the story of the birth of Jesus, without having to agree on whether or not he was the messiah.

As Christians and Jews who married across religious boundaries, we each approach a service like the Lessons and Carols from our own personal theological perspective. Whether we understand the Christmas story as history, or metaphor, or myth, or mystery, we are glad to live in a time and place when we can experience it together, sharing both comfort and joy.

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5 Replies to “On Mourning, Christmas, and Interfaith Community”

  1. Susan, this post was so moving. I’ve read it now at least 3 times, each time with tears, imagining the poignancy of your Lessons and Carols experience. We will all make it an extra special point this year to express our love and appreciation for our families and communities. Would you mind if I shared your post with my readers?

  2. Susan,
    What a glorious service, what precious insight and feeling. I’m proud of you, your family, and your congregation. God bless you, merry Christmas, and happy Hanukkah.

  3. Reblogged this on not just an Other and commented:
    Christmas this year was truly beautiful, and so too the messages that it brought. From newspaper articles to old favorite movies to Father Sebastian’s homily at Christmas Eve mass, the focus of our country – especially in the wake of the Newtown tragedy – was on our children. Protecting their innocence, loving them, rejoicing in them. While so much of Christmas this year was typical of Milla family tradition, there are a few moments I will never forget that separate this Christmas from all the rest. Reading Susan Katz Miller’s piece, “On Mourning, Christmas, and Interfaith Community” is one of them, and I now share the piece with you. Merry Christmas!

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