Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Season’s meanings: the spiritual side of the holidays

This is a spiritual season, as an entire genre of storytelling has been created to point out. Find your family, be generous to others, eat well and follow the traditions, but don't sweat the size of the tree, Charlie Brown.

Most of us can unite around such simple precepts, whether in the celebration of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's or just a few extra days off. But life goes on, and the headlines reveal the rifts between our best intentions and our actions. With this in mind, members of The Globe's Faith Exchange panel convened to discuss the spirit of the season.

Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of the TV program Context with Lorna Dueck, seen Sundays on Global TV at 9:30 a.m. ET and Vision TV at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Story continues below advertisement

Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master's degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Peter Stockland is director of media services for Cardus, a think tank that seeks to renew North American social architecture. He is also publisher of Convivium magazine, which explores the role of faith in our common life. He writes a regular column for The Catholic Register.

Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past 10 years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Moderator Guy Nicholson is an editor in The Globe's Comment section. He professes no religious beliefs.


Guy Nicholson: Thanks for joining us, panelists. My hope for today's discussion is to find spiritual questions with a seasonal theme in the stories we've been following this year.


Story continues below advertisement

A wide-ranging debate has broken out over the philosophy and practical implications of Canadian foreign aid. Meanwhile, domestic charitable giving has increased marginally after years of stagnation and decline. Individually, what do we get from giving?

Sheema Khan: I think we gain a lot. We learn to loosen the yoke of selfishness and greed, and gain in humility by the reminder that these worldly possessions are bounties from God, and that value lies not in the possessions themselves but how we share them. In Islam, the worthiness of deeds is determined by one's intentions, and the highest intention is to seek the pleasure of God alone. So when Muslims engage in acts of charity, we are often reminded to purify intentions (so as not to seek credit, glory, thanks etc.), and to pray that the Almighty accepts our humble deeds.

Howard Voss-Altman: In Judaism, we are commanded by God to give as a matter of principle. Giving – to the poor, the aged, the orphan – is a religious obligation, regardless of our own personal health and welfare. So even when our crops are not as abundant, and even when our bank account is not quite as fruitful as we would like, we are still required to give. It is the act of giving that is essential, and it reminds us that we are all connected to each other, in community with God.

Peter Stockland: What do we get? Nothing. I think that's the point. If you're giving to get, you're negotiating.

Guy Nicholson: Peter, if we get nothing from giving, why do we do it without being compelled?

Peter Stockland: We were all given a random gift. It's called life. To me, that creates a bond with others – I wouldn't say a compulsion, though – to willingly pay that gift back, as we are able, for as long as we have life.

Story continues below advertisement

Howard Voss-Altman: I like the idea of compulsion – "commandedness," as we say in Judaism. If I feel a sense of obligation or requirement, giving will become habitual, a part of my daily or weekly routine. Such giving keeps me connected with the larger community, and creates a sense of interdependence that is critical to positive and just relationships.

In response to Peter's claim of "nothing," our giving creates the possibility of a more just, more compassionate world. A major reward, don't you think?

Peter Stockland: No, I don't think that's a reward. I think it's an effect. I think it's a good. But not a reward. Again, that's bargaining.

Howard Voss-Altman: I don't quite understand. How is giving – as a religious obligation – some sort of bargain? Is the implication that our "covenant" with God is a "bargain"?

Lorna Dueck: We get a better world, in the macro and within ourselves. Christianity promotes giving at Christmas because, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we get a chance to imitate God's gift of a vision for a better world. This whole area of giving has become conflicted because of the consumerism that runs against Christian ideals, but there still is something of great virtue that emerges through the act of unselfishness. I think if we had to make all our giving anonymous, we might get closer to the benefits of giving.

Peter Stockland: Lorna, in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict talks about charity as being the "good for all of us" and links it unbreakably to truth. Charity – meaning love as giving for its own sake – is essential to living true lives as God's children.

Sheema Khan: I think a wonderful example of giving is the recent example of the New York police officer who was photographed giving boots to a man on the street. The overwhelming response on the Web indicated that the story struck a chord with the wider public, as it resonated with the goodness that resides within the human spirit. Contrast this with the man pushed in front of an oncoming subway car, and the ensuing anger. In the latter, there seemed to be no charity whatsoever – in fact, the opposite, as a debate erupted about the photographer who took pictures and the newspaper that chose to run them.

I forgot to mention that, in Islam, there are two types of charity: obligatory (zakat) and voluntary (sadaqa). The former is one of the pillars of Islam, and is required of adult Muslims who have a base wealth beyond a certain minimal amount. Zakat is usually 2.5 per cent of one's net earnings in a one-year period, and is directed toward the welfare of the poor, orphans and others. Sadaqa, on the other hand, includes all types of charity – money, goods, even a smile. We should not expect thanks or a reward from others, but understand that such acts, if done with the proper intention, help to purify our souls.

Guy Nicholson: I'm intrigued by the contrast between the implications of a couple of these answers – on one side, that giving is an obligation, and on the other, that giving involves no particular return beyond the act. I've always felt conditioned toward the latter explanation, but I have come to feel that there must be a reason to give.

Howard Voss-Altman: Guy, a point of clarification. The obligation to give does not imply receiving anything in return. The obligation to give is a way to honour God's command, and to live in accordance with God's law. In Judaism, this is simply the affirmation of the covenant relationship. If we were not obliged to give – or if we only gave when we were well off and it required nothing of us – what would our giving really mean?

Peter Stockland: Wonderfully said. I wish I'd said that.

Guy Nicholson: Hmm. I still see fulfilling an obligation as a return, or at least a pretty strong incentive. But perhaps that's a matter for another debate.


Thousands continue to die in Syria and in Mexico's drug war. The Arab Spring risks becoming a winter of bloodshed. Closer to home, we're challenged by the communities and relationships in conflict around us. What should be our tools for peacemaking?

Sheema Khan: Why look elsewhere, when our own House of Commons has descended into partisan verbal brawling?

Peter Stockland: More and more, I think it's the words that come out of our mouths and off our keyboards, the tone in which they come out – the meaning we intend them to have, and making as sure as possible they do have. Jesus called peacemakers "blessed" and, as I get older, I get more uncomfortable with my younger self's love of sarcasm (I'm not quitting cold turkey, I'm afraid) and more diligent about asking myself whether what I'm about to say fits under the heading of "peacemaker" rather than the opposite. Words to my family, to my co-workers, to someone who holds a door open for me, to the world at large. What else is more basic?

Howard Voss-Altman: As the Jewish community is confronted with yet another iteration of the seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and its neighbours, we must not only work for peace, we must be pursuers of peace. One does not need to seek peace with one's friends or colleagues (family is a different story). But when it comes to people with whom we fundamentally disagree, we must recognize that pursuing peace demands that we sit down and begin to share our concerns. When have the National Hockey League talks made progress? When the owners finally sat down with the players. When people talk directly to each other, they find out that they have much more in common than they realized. Peacemaking is about seeing that the person across the table was created in the image of God, and working from there.

Peter Stockland: So true, Rabbi Voss-Altman. My understanding of Judaism (limited as it is) is that hospitality is central to the faith. So when we see Israel put in a position where its peace, and in return the peace of its neighbours, is routinely violated, making the even greater good of hospitality virtually impossible, it does seem crucial that everyone involved begin to see the person across the table (or the border) as a child of God. Indeed, that they see the willingness to even sit down at the table is the least God demands.

Guy Nicholson: One of my favourite concepts is where two children are forced to share a finite thing; a piece of cake is the usual example. One is tasked with dividing it, the other is allowed to choose. It's so simple and perfect – I wish it could be applied in a situation like that.

Howard Voss-Altman: Yes, in our house, one child picks three films to watch, and the other picks one film from the three. It seems to work quite well. I'm afraid that such arrangements work only where there is the perception of equal value from the finite object at stake. Negotiations for land and water – not to mention historical claim – make for a more complex scenario.

Guy Nicholson: And like you suggest, there first has to be a desire on all sides to pursue a peaceful resolution as the primary objective.

Lorna Dueck: That's a great example, and also why self-sacrifice is such an important virtue to celebrate – it has the potential to affect all levels of our globe.

The tools for peacemaking include deep listening, humility and accessing the rich truths of our own traditions. For Christians, it's the example of Jesus. Earlier this year, I stood in Bethlehem Square on the site the tradition declares Jesus was born, and I was thinking that, while I saw peace for the moment between the Muslims and Christians who shared the square, the cathedral over Jesus's birthplace was a different story.

Here you had three Christian traditions arguing over space and care, preferences and style – it really messed up any sense of awe. Just like what happens in too many of our families and communities. We have an amazing opportunity to see God when we engage in peacemaking. I recently interviewed Miroslav Volf at Yale's Center for Faith and Culture. He said we need "more religion, not less" in peacemaking. He told me that, when we read our faith "thin, instead of thick," we lose its very capacity to be a beautiful gift for love and peace.

Howard Voss-Altman: Sadly, when our religious doctrines are mingled with intractable political and historical conflicts, our doctrines get very "thin," indeed.

Peter Stockland: But isn't that where families come in? Families that say, 'No, we're not going to treat the neighbours instrumentally; we are going to treat them as God's children just like us." If that sounds romantic and far-fetched, well, Northern Ireland hasn't been romantic for much of its history, but something of the sort worked there.

Guy Nicholson: That takes us to our third seasonal theme.


Ontario's government and teachers are at loggerheads. Across Canada, legislation meant to increase educational inclusiveness is seen as trampling religious rights. Increasing numbers of university students seek counselling to cope with academic stress. What is the most important thing to teach a child?

Peter Stockland: Kindness, encompassing not just friendliness, congeniality, niceness or positivity but being present to other people, actually standing still and listening to what they're saying – paying attention to them as you would have them pay attention to you. From a Christian (and Christmas) perspective, one of the things that really strikes me in the Gospels is Jesus's almost fierce loving attention to whoever is before him. If I could go back in time and give my own children one thing, it would be a measure of that ability to pay fierce loving attention. And if I could go even further back, I would have my own parents give it to me.

Howard Voss-Altman: Well said. When we are truly present with each other, peace just might be possible. We also need to give our children a sense of self-confidence. I'm not exactly sure how to do it, but it couldn't be more important.

Lorna Dueck: The most important thing to teach a child is that they are loved by God and that nothing can change that. Not stress over academics, not poverty, not ability, not health, not status, not bullying. Children are defined by the reality they are created in the image of God. When family is the foundation of love and belonging, that becomes easier to absorb, but it's not everybody's experience. So it's our work to teach that every human is to be protected and loved because they belong to God. They have a dignity-endowing blessing because we were created in the image of God. I had an early look at some of the rollout coming on the Christmas movies hitting cinemas: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables carries this message of the image of God in people so strongly – I think it's a gift for Christmas.

Guy Nicholson: Lorna, can you translate that for those of us raising children outside theistic traditions?

Lorna Dueck: To teach a child they are loved unconditionally. This occurs when parenting is healthy, yet the time soon comes when the child goes out into a world that loves and judges them based on merit, on "What have you done for me lately?" When people have a loving family to retreat to, they can get by. Or they get by based on their family's values. What the introduction of God into a child's life does is to give them a narrative for their identity that goes beyond their parents.

Guy Nicholson: We're almost out of time.


Canadian singer Justin Bieber was booed at the Grey Cup, yet Canadians stood as a nation to applaud Christine Sinclair, captain of our Olympic soccer team. Is there one thing in this world worth universally celebrating?

Howard Voss-Altman: Yes. That here in Canada, religious freedom and pluralism are truly celebrated, as evidenced by this type of panel. Despite the fact that we have different faith traditions, we can engage in a genuine exchange of religious ideas about some of the most vexing issues in our society. Such mutual respect is worth universal celebration. I wish we could export it to other parts of the world.

Lorna Dueck: Christmas captures this answer of what is most universally worth celebrating: It's hope, love, peace and joy. As panelists, we are sharing this month with many readers who don't want anything to do with our religious beliefs, but the irony is that the fruit of those beliefs is always at play across the boundaries. For me, the gift of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas embodies God's intention for humanity. Christians have stretched this celebration from Advent on Dec. 1 to Epiphany on Jan. 6, in part because it takes a long time to adjust to what we should be celebrating: God continually coming into our lives. With or without religious words, this gives us cause for a celebration of hope, love, peace and joy.

Peter Stockland: I think we should celebrate moments. This past year, I've lived through the death of both my wife's parents, whom I loved for 30 years and who gave me the gift of my wife. I was at my father-in-law's bedside when he lived his last moment, drew his last breath, in November. At that moment, I was praying the beautiful line from the Hail Mary: "Holy Mary/Mother of God/pray for us sinners/now and at the hour of our death." It made me reflect on how even the hour of our death comes down to a moment. Moments are truly where we live.

For the Christian liturgical year, the very moment of Yeshua ben Yosef's birth opens us to the moments of Jesus Christ's passion, death and resurrection. The Gospels themselves are a series of seemingly fragmentary moments, with leaps and jumps in narrative time, all moving inexorably to death and to overcoming death but, equally, celebrating each moment they encompass. I taught my kids that achievement is an aggregate, not a single event, and you should celebrate each small step. To me, moments of life are the same. At Christmas, especially, we should celebrate the moments we have together because the truth is we know not the day nor the hour when we will lose those we love for all time.

Sheema Khan: I didn't watch the Grey Cup, so I can't comment on the reaction of the fans. But I did watch that memorable Olympic soccer game in August – I put it right there with Game 8 of the Canada-Russia 1972 series. I think we collectively appreciate and celebrate the human spirit, as it strives against challenges and emerges triumphant, with humility. Terry Fox was an example of a person who embodies all of these qualities. And, yes, so does Christine Sinclair, in a different way. There are many more examples.

As a nation, I believe we have one collective historical hurdle that we must face head on in order to be a nation at peace with itself. And that has to do with our shameful historical treatment of the aboriginal population. While we can celebrate individual successes (and all they embody), I think we have the potential to reach such a success at a collective level, when we come face to face with our ugly past, and rectify it, in respectful partnership with our aboriginal neighbours. This implies learning about aboriginal traditions, listening to their experiences, sharing their pain and embracing communities as equals. Our national celebrations are tempered when a significant portion is hurting.

Guy Nicholson: Thanks to everyone for sharing your time and thoughts. Enjoy the holidays.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to