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Advent, Atheists, and Why the Menorah Should Matter to You

December 4, 2018 by

Last week at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, a menorah located on campus in the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house was vandalized. Later that week, it was stolen. My younger brother is a freshman living on campus there and shared with me the beautiful response written by Penn State’s president, Eric J. Barron.

I myself am a follower of Jesus. Neither I nor my church has a menorah that someone could desecrate. However, something as close to my heart as any of my church’s symbols was violated at Penn State last week: the freedom of persons to worship God, as they understand him, in peace and without fear. I am thousands of miles away on another continent. I am not Jewish. Yet, I feel the crime – I feel obligated to feel the crime – of what was done against the Jewish community that strongly.

That’s not solely a Christian responsibility. That is a human responsibility. Every last one of us is obligated to counteract such a violation actively, affirmatively. Wherever another human being, because of her Jewish ethnicity or religion, her Islam, her Christianity, her clothing, or her color does not feel welcome in your presence, you are denying her the right to be authentic – to be true to herself – without fear. Fix it.

Stollen and mate for Uruguayan Advent

As I said, I am a follower of Jesus, and last weekend I celebrated the First Sunday of Advent. For me, that day marks the beginning of one of the most holy seasons of the year. The weeks that follow it are weeks of gathering, of expecting, of readying the heart for something so pure and so small that one could easily miss it. These weeks culminate on Christmas Day with the arrival of a tiny baby who is at once an unwanted immigrant and the Savior of the world, an earthshaking paradox that breaks all human excuse or reason and brings both field laborers and powerful intellectuals to their knees.

Two days ago I celebrated the first Sunday of Advent, not in my church with my fellow believers, but way out in the Uruguayan campo with a motley group of atheists. I and two other women from my church traveled out from the city to spend the weekend with them – a bunch of free-thinking, home-steading, weed-growing, very delightful people. Since Sunday would be the first day of our Advent season, we baked Stollen, a super-rich German Christmas bread that our community has incorporated into its Advent celebrations. Of course, they had never heard of the likes – but when they saw that the day was a significant one for us as Christians and that we wanted to share it with them, they were all on board to participate.

Over the course of the day, amid quad and motorcycle rides on the dusty sheep trails, communal turkey roasting, and a happy chaos of child and animal care, we shared the best things each of us had to offer the others. We sang them some of our favorite Christmas songs, and over Stollen and mate, I found myself fielding questions about what Advent means to me and telling them about my church and my God, about Christmas and the symbol of the candle and what it signifies for me at this time of year. The respect and appreciation with which they listened moved me profoundly.

two people on a quad

That respect and appreciation is what Penn State’s president is calling for in his letter, and that, I am convinced, is what God is going to see at the end of the day.

Are my atheist friends on the point of conversion? Nope, and I don’t care. I don’t even see it as necessary. That is totally not the point. As far as I can perceive, they already belong to God and it’s kind of inconsequential whether or not they know it or admit it.

We are all works in progress. None of us is done growing, assimilating, or learning.

I do miss my church community; I miss that unity of heart. At the same time, the majority of my close friends here in Uruguay are atheists and I know now that difference of belief is not what separates human beings. What separates us from each other are things like fear and superiority and close-mindedness. Where those things are not, difference of belief is so easy to transcend.

That’s not hot air or theory; I know it to be fact. Uruguay is one of the most atheist nations in the world, and I’ve been living in it for one and a half years now. I’ve seen difference of belief wither away into insignificance over and over again.

Nor does moving beyond such difference imply compromise. My friends know what I believe. I know what they believe. We all know that (a) we have absorbed beautiful, enriching things from each other, and that (b) we are all works in progress. None of us is done growing, assimilating, or learning.

Penn State will hold an open menorah lighting on Old Main lawn on Wednesday. If I were within reach of the campus, I would be there. I’m not, so here’s to hoping thousands and thousands of faculty and staff and students turn out for that. On one hand, it will make a loud, clear statement about what each of them values, about what they will and will not tolerate. Beyond that, though, no matter their religious creed or lack thereof, they will come out richer for it.


About the author


Shannon McPherson

Shannon is a literature student at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

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