But in spite of disillusionment over how the story of Jesus' birth has been turned into a carnival, an excuse for a shopping spree or world domination, a shield or even a sword -- a weapon to bludgeon nonbelievers -- I still love the essence of it.
Unto you a child is born. No room at the inn. In a manger, in a stable. The stars overhead broadcast the whereabouts of the newborn king, born of humble parents. The light of the world.
What's not to believe? You can despise the institutional wrappings of the world's religions, whose intolerant and self-righteous practitioners seem always to be getting us into wars, extending wars or, at the very least, ripping off the poor and the meek they are supposed to serve. Or you can love your 5,000-member, nondenominational, born-again Christian church with stadium seating and large-screen televisions and piped-in, synthesized music and a 24-hour gym.
You can be indifferent and live a life without a church, but if you are a seeker, you know when you have seen Jesus.
Author Anne Lamott described her half-lab, half-retriever Sadie who died last year as "Jesus with a black fur coat."
I saw Jesus yesterday on the sidewalk of Tejon Street in downtown Colorado Springs. As I sat eating an expensive outdoor lunch, hiding behind the Sunday New York Times, I looked up as an elderly woman passed. She was so bent over by osteoporosis that her head gazed down toward her feet, the hump at the top of her back rising a foot over her head. But her clothes and her composure celebrated the day and the season and walking down Tejon Street on a Sunday afternoon -- neat stockings and shoes, a beautiful dress with gold buttons, a shiny scarf, and on top of her bent-over head, a red hat.
My grandfather showed me Jesus hundreds of times, especially when he was sick and old and lived at my house before he died. One night, a group of devout young men from his church up in Bowling Green, Ky., came to my house in Nashville to pray with Grandaddy, who they called Brother Carpenter. They had all been boys in his church growing up; poor boys who had needed clothes to wear to school or someone to bail their daddies out of jail.
Now these boys prayed that he could get well enough to return to Bowling Green just one more Sunday, to go to church with them.
Grandaddy never even closed his eyes. When they looked up with hopeful tears in their eyes, he said, "Sorry boys. I won't be coming back to church. It's my time to go."
A few weeks later, he was dead.
Last year, during the holidays, we had gorged and stayed up late and feasted and exchanged too many gifts when, one Sunday morning, my daughter and her boyfriend, visiting from New York, walked with me down the street to attend services at a tiny Full Gospel church. This was a tambourine-shaking, falling-out, singing church with walls that pulsed to the beat.
As the minister, a woman, walked down the aisle, she stopped and offered blessings to people, placing her palm on their foreheads and receiving their prayers. She stopped at the end of our pew and looked at my daughter's boyfriend, a beautiful young man with black hair and faintly Asian features, a non-churchgoer.
"Come on out here, honey," she said. He did, looking a little afraid.
She took him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. Then her hand shot out and she lay her palm on his forehead.
"I know you don't know what's going on here," she said. "But I just want to tell you that when I look into your face I see Jesus!"
"Amen!" shouted the congregation. Walking home on a warm winter's day, I saw Jesus too, in this boy's face, in my daughter's hand laced with mine, in the bare winter branches and the birds rushing toward the feeders in my back yard.
Looking for Jesus this year is hard; the world is in such a mess. But finding Jesus can be as easy as looking into someone's face. We just have to remember to look.