There is the Christ of faith. And there is the Jesus of history. Scholars distinguish between the figure elaborately defined by creed (Light of Light, True God of True God) and the nearly anonymous character who lived for 30 years or so in a rural province of ancient Palestine. But the festivities of this season, even for that vast areligious majority for whom Jesus has only cultural significance, point to the way in which he has transcended doctrine to become a token, in Western civilization at least, of almost universal positive regard. For multitudes, whether church-going or not, he is quite simply an object of love.

“By their fruit you shall know them,’’ Jesus is remembered saying. In his case, for all the enshrouding mystery, a palpable harvest of ethical goodness and spiritual genius survives a long history of intermingled virtues and crimes advanced in his name. Not only critics of Christianity sense the distance between Jesus and the institution that jelled around his image: Christians are first to do so. After all, the Gospels tell a story of abandonment by those who loved him most — and they were themselves the ultimate source of that story. The betrayal of Jesus by Jesus people goes with the territory. Thus the quite human communities of his followers have, from the start, used his memory as a measure, and, always falling short, have found in that memory principles of self-criticism, forgiveness, and resolve. Followers of Jesus still do that.

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