In just over a week or so, some two billion Christians — myself included — will celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians honor as the long-awaited Anointed One (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek) and Muslims, following the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad recorded in the Holy Koran, honor as a great prophet and spiritual teacher.
However, in most modern, industrialized, wealthy Western countries, the Holy Day (holiday) has become a time of indulgence, vanity, sentimentality, and commerce — missing the point of the coming of Jesus into this world. Personally, I find all of this offensive to the point of blasphemy, a profanation of the second most important Christian liturgical feast. (The Sacred Triduum, which includes Easter Sunday, is the most important one, something akin to the High Holy Days of Christianity’s “elder brothers [siblings] in faith”, as Pope Saint John Paul II, inspired by the dogmatic and pastoral teachings of the Second Vatican Council, described the Jewish people.)
But you don’t have to be a pope or a cardinal or rosary-rattling nun to be disgusted at the vulgarity that now passes for Advent and Christmastide.
Still, we do well to recall that the birth of Jesus — a heirophany, in the words of Mircea Eliade, and the Divine Incarnation to Christians like me — probably seemed quite vulgar to the people among whom it happened physically and historically. After all, Jesus was poor, of seemingly questionable birth, and from a conquered people in an occupied land. Who on Earth would expect a heirophany in such circumstances? And what kind of God shits all over himself or bites his mother’s nipple even when she’s dry, as the divine-human infant Jesus did surely?
Christians theologians use the word kenosis (from ἐκένωσεν in Philippians 2:7) to describe the complete and utter lack of divine trappings that characterized the intersection of the divine and the human in the person of that helpless infant who would become one of the most important men in human history. To paraphrase Eliade, it was an interruption of divine reality into the space of human experience and it turned the world on its head.
To a spiritual theologian, it was the consecration of all human beings — but especially those who are overlooked, despised, ignored, weak, helpless, little regarded, unworthy, and unseemly — as holy and sacred to God; likewise with every aspect of life and human experience — including those regarded as ugly, meaningless, useless, vile, painful, and unwanted. Even realities from which (we’re convinced) God must surely be absent possess power to manifest to the world a God whose love is the supreme Good that can’t help but generate life, protect life, increase life, spread life.
Bonum est diffusivum sui, as my professors at the Angelicum repeated again and again, desperately hoping something would stick. It did.
To ancient Fathers of the Church, God became like us by means of Jesus so that we, in turn, might better reflect our divine origin. For a Christian believer like me, each and every human being has the same origin in God’s love. We belong to one family and, like the cranky, hungry infant feeding at the Virgin Mary’s breast, this family is not merely the reality of flesh and blood that we first perceive; rather, like the ‘divin Enfant’ (as one of my favorite Christmas hymns calls Jesus), this family is an easily overlooked but nonetheless real and true manifestation of the divine. That’s what I was referring to when I once spoke of teachers safeguarding their most important teachings by hiding them where no one would think to look.
To my estimation this is the meaning of Christmas — and even an Alien Being would understand how powerful, meaningful, useful, and beneficial these Christian religious beliefs and liturgical practices, which have been part of my life since infancy, can be. In all likelihood they would find in your sacred beliefs and spiritual practices much that is good, useful, and worthwhile even if they’ve never heard of the Prophet Muhammad or Shakyamuni Buddha. I’m quite sure they would perceive in a poor infant or a lame dog an empty place able to represent that which is infinite and spaciousness enough to become a home for the divine. That’s what I was trying to get at when I wrote somewhere about “the place of the empty heart”.
Self-emptying, that’s what kenosis means. Buddhists have a similar, and almost universally misunderstood, word: anatta, the Pali for “non-self” or “substanceless.
I can’t help but recall the famous story of Asanga and Maitreya in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, in which a divine visitor is said to have manifested himself in the form of a lame, maggot-riddled dog — not exactly a seemly or decorous form for a divine being! According to the story, only Asanga perceived the Future Buddha Maitryea in the form of that one particular lame, maggot-riddled dog. Asanga even parades the Buddha-Dog around in a nearby town to see if anyone else can perceive in the dog the heirophany that is absolutely apparent to him. Only Asanga got the message!
Such is the wisdom of the world — the powerful, rich, holy, and wise are always missing the point. But let’s not fool ourselves, most of the time people like you and me do, too. It happened in the past and it happens today.
Yet something from Eliade makes me question my condemnation of those many millions of people who celebrate Christmas according to those popular cultural practices that I went so far as to call blasphemy. (Technically and from a theological perspective, it’s quite difficult to commit blasphemy, strictly speaking. But that’s a matter for another day.)
In Chapter 2 of Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred, entitled Homogeneity of Space and Hierophany, Eliade makes this shocking declaration about humanity:
To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior.
To my mind, this might also apply to intelligent beings, whether biological or perhaps even technological, from distant places in the Universe. Somewhere I wrote, though rather inartfully, about religion as a sort of universal experience that might have cultic expression, as in the Christian liturgy, but might also continue to possess cultural significance long after the extinction of the original religion. That’s why even an Elf-on-the-Shelf doll or the sharing of Christmas crackers still has some vestigial, if seemingly tenuous, connection to the Christian religious celebration that meant so much to me first when I was a little boy whose grandmother doted on him a little too much and later as a seminarian surrounded by brothers who loved me just as I was, even though I was never quite satisfied with myself or my progress in the spiritual life.
As I mentioned somewhere, embedded within every major world religion and most so-called minor religions, whether still practiced or long extinct, are social and psychological mechanisms that give us a reason to go on living when life makes no sense or even seems useless. Our common experience of impermanence and mortality is terrifying if we dare stop and contemplate it. I’m fond of quoting the American Lutheran-turned-Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus. Somewhere Father Neuhaus said:
We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. (…) As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word “good” should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good. (First Things, February 2000)
Surely Alien Visitors would understand this and maybe even have an opinion on the matter, just like any one of us. Imagine that, talking theology with Aliens!
I was going to write more about Christmas, Islamophobia, the war in Syria, poverty, and Family, but maybe that’s something for you to think about, talk about, and write about.
After all, we’re in this together — and your experience is every bit as important as mine.
December 12, 2017