Christmas is here to stay, despite gala media reports of “the War on Christmas”. In the US, capitalism has ensconced Christmas as a perpetual cash cow. Christmas is not in danger of disappearing any time soon from the American landscape, and even secularists can keep Christmas in their hearts for whatever significance it may have for them.
The religious aspect of Christmas, however, is said to be waning, particularly in places like Great Britain. Certainly in the US, church attendance is down and many attend Christmas services out of a sense of obligation, marking a tradition, or for “feel good” and family reasons. However, this ignores the prime “reason for the season”, namely the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Why should his birthday be celebrated two thousand years after it happened, and what are some valid reasons for doing so?
Like it or not, Jesus is the lynchpin religious figure for the West. Other candidates, though worthy, never achieved this highest pinnacle of honor – not Socrates, not Apollonius of Tyana, or any other ancient person. Jesus came to prominence because a powerful network of bishops in Latin and Byzantine Christianity saw to the task. By keeping his name alive during periods of persecution, and universally promoting it in the liberated post-Constantinian era, the episcopate and its priests and teachers elevated Jesus to the status of a new god, under whose auspices Empire and culture embraced Christianity and wedded it to the state. Jesus occupies the place he does through the efforts – some fair, some foul – of the Latin and Greek episcopates in cooperation with heads of state. The Reformation only carried on this trajectory; as has Hollywood with its myriad biblical epics. Thus Jesus is thoroughly established within the culture. So, in a popular sense: why not celebrate his birth?
For me, the most cogent reason to celebrate Jesus’ birth is the content of his teachings and the example he set. Based on those, and to choose the weakest affirmation possible, it can at least be said, our culture could have done much worse in its choice of spiritual icon. Especially important among Jesus’ teachings, it seems to me, are the following:
With his Jewish peers and ancestors, Jesus proclaimed that the greatest commandment is to love one’s neighbor as oneself and to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and spirit. This is hardly revolutionary, but it links human love with God’s own passion, and it places Jesus squarley within his Jewish milieu.
Jesus identified God’s chief passion regarding human living as righteousness. Righteousness in the biblical sense does not mean an attitude of “holier than thou” puritanical moral superiority. Quite the opposite, righteousness mean justice. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, and he meant the pursuit of social justice. Some examples of this are Jesus’ admonitions to support widows and orphans, the poor, sick, lepers, the possessed, the “unclean”, the marginalized, to give from the heart rather than from religious obligation or fear of condemnation, to recognize the very best of one’s own culture even in members of foreign, despised cultures (as in the parable of the good Samaritan), to recognize God and even Jesus himself in “the least of these little ones” to whom one gives one’s heart. The list could be expanded indefinitely, but from these few examples it is plain that Jesus’ agenda was one of compassionate seeking after justice, with its necessary corollary of practicing mercy and forbearance. Of course, these things are as commendable and as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago.
Jesus offered and practiced a pragmatic, egalitarian form of mysticism in which all seekers might enter the Kingdom of God here and now, in their own lifetimes. Jesus believed in Heaven and an afterlife, but what he offered to everyone is the potential of entering that Kingdom here and now, on earth, before we die.
In a sense, Jesus brought Heaven down to earth and opened its gates to all. His parables are allegories, analogies and metaphors that point to this mysterious Kingdom and give clues as how to enter it. As New Testament scholar Robert Funk said, Jesus had a vision of a wondrous, vast “Beyond” which is at once present, and attainable, here and now. The glory of this vision is that is “share-able”, communicable, and participatory. Like the Buddha’s teachings, Jesus’ teachings offer a hands-on, experiential and experimental means of joining the Kingdom. And, again like the Buddha, Jesus’ “Way” involves a dying to ego (defined as “the anxious, grasping self”), to be followed by a “resurrection” into a new life centered in ultimate reality or Spirit. With our contemporary knowledge and interest in comparative religions and spiritual paths, surely this aspect of Jesus’ teaching offers great potential to modern seekers.
Moreover, Jesus’ teaching is not bound by his historical circumstances and is not weakened by modernity. As John Sanford wrote:
Jesus’ personality and teachings are unique and not historically conditioned because they do not stem from a human source, but are rooted in his consciousness of the inner world through which comes his awareness of the holy God whom the prophets before him had known in part. The beauty of the teachings of Jesus is that they do not depend upon any system of thought, for Jesus did not express himself by means of jargon or concepts but by means of living images, figures, and parables. In this way he succeeded in freeing his message from history and making it timeless and applicable to all ages. His teachings do not come from man’s conceptualized and historically conditioned world, but are drawn from the well of life itself … drawing upon images from the storehouse of the human soul …It is for this reason that his parables and sayings speak to the human condition right now as much as they did to the men of his time. *
Finally, a word about the person himself, especially Jesus as an embodiment of compassion and justice. Some of his recorded deeds and sayings are not only meaningful, but sometimes almost unbearably poignant.
In this regard, one might think of his healing of the young daughter of synagogue leader Jairus, as reported in Mark 5:21-24; 35-42,
“…. there came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house certain people who said, ‘Your daughter is dead: why trouble the Master any further?’ As soon as Jesus heard this, he said to the synagogue ruler, ‘Do not be afraid: only believe.’ … he took the father and mother of the maiden … and entered in where she was lying. And he took the girl by the hand, and said to her, ‘Talitha koum’ (which, translated is, ‘Little lamb, I say to you, Arise’). And immediately the girl arose, and walked …. And he charged them strictly that no one should know of it; and instructed that she should be given something to eat.”
The root of Talitha is talay, which, with the similar name Tabitha, has the connotation of “roe” or “lamb”.
“Get up, little lamb.” Its tenderness reaches out to us across two thousand years.
To conclude, some words from scholar Hugh J. Schonfield:
… by his implicit confidence in the coming of the Kingdom of God over which he was deputed to reign, Jesus had won through to victory. The messianic program was saved from the grave … to become a guiding light and inspiration … Wherever mankind strives to bring in the rule of justice, righteousness and peace, there the deathless presence of Jesus the Messiah is with them. Wherever a people … is found laboring in the cause of human brotherhood, love and compassion, there the King of the Jews is enthroned. No other will ever come to be what he was and do what he did … But doubtless there will be other moments … and other men through whom the vision will speak at an appointed time. Meanwhile we have not exhausted the potentialities of the vision of Jesus. **
In Jesus, a son was given to us. Long live his vision, his reign, his Kingdom, his wisdom and his compassion.
And so … Merry Christmas.
* unspecified source
** Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot. 2005 40th anniversary edition, The Disinformation Company, Ltd, NY, pp. 180-181