Friday, December 9, 2022

Advent 2022: The Secret Ingredient of the Christmas Story

It’s inevitable this time of year to hear critics proclaiming that “Christmas is a pagan holiday.” The obvious clue that this is not so is in the name of the holiday itself, literally “Christ’s Mass.” Early Christians did appropriate pagan customs, symbols, dates, and traditions, but not because the Christians themselves were, or wanted to be, pagans. Their aim was to persuade the pagans to become Christians, by trying to convince them that they didn’t have to give up all that much to follow a different god. The Christians in Ireland went so far as to take the beloved Celtic goddess Brigid and turn her into St. Brigid of Kildare, a miracle-working abbess who by an amazing coincidence possessed many of the same characteristics as the earlier deity.

At the other end of the spectrum are evangelical-leaning folks who are aware of the pagan overtones of many Christian traditions and forgo them, such that, say, “Easter” becomes “Resurrection Sunday,” to avoid any connection with the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Eostre, who may or may not have given Easter its name, and who may or may not have ever even existed as an object of worship. All we have on the matter is the eighth-century word of the Venerable Bede, whose idea was picked up by Jacob Grimm, he of the Brothers Grimm, and turned into legend. If only the Western church had chosen to use the word “Pascha” for Easter, as the Eastern Orthodox do, there would surely be much less controversy and consternation. If you suspect that the word “Pascha” has a connection to the Jewish Passover, you’d be correct.

The evangelical folks will also tell you that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and will implore us to “keep Christ in Christmas.” To this view I’m sympathetic. Christianity and Western civilization are, after all, inextricably joined, and there’s no point in denying it. I cringe every year to hear the incessant “holiday holiday holiday” from corporations whose bank accounts swell in November and December thanks to gifts being purchased by the 90% or so of the population that celebrates Christmas, not some amorphous, vague, and nameless winter “holiday.” Healthy pluralistic societies honor and protect the majority traditions that act as a cultural glue while respecting minority traditions and observances. What they don’t do is subordinate or otherwise suppress the majority traditions in an attempt to be “inclusive.” That’s a surefire recipe for cultural disintegration. More than that, it’s always bemused me that we never avoid saying “Easter” when it usually falls close to Passover, a major Jewish holiday by any reckoning, but we presumably avoid saying “Christmas” because of its proximity to other end-of-year celebrations, like Hanukkah, which is a comparatively minor Jewish celebration and has only been turned into a kind of Jewish Christmas by those who, for whatever reason, wish to promote a false equivalence.

Of course, keeping Christ in Christmas entails more than just saying “Merry Christmas” to the cashier at Macy’s. Jesus reached out to the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts. He loved his enemies and turned the other cheek. He prayed for his persecutors. And he called out the religious hypocrites who proclaimed their own holiness and lorded their supposed righteousness over the people, while in reality they were, in Christ’s own words, nothing but whitewashed tombs. Are we willing to walk the same path as Christ? Are we willing to be the Good Samaritan, the forgiving father of the Prodigal Son, the one who helps the “least of these”? Because that’s how you keep Christ in Christmas.

I try my best to do that, because even though I’m something like an eclectic Taoist Catholic who’s never gone strictly by the book and probably never will, it’s the Sermon-on-the-Mount goodness of Christ’s message that keeps me at least nominally in the fold. I was raised Catholic and find comfort and peace in the church’s rituals and traditions, the rhythms of the liturgical season, the undying message of love and hope, and the church’s unwavering pursuit of those timeless Platonic ideals of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Am I a “believer” in the story of Jesus in the most literal sense? Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by “believe.” I strive to live my life as if it were all true – not in a Pascal’s-Wager, hedging-my-bets-to-stay-out-of-hell kind of way, and not in a way of subjugating my critical mind to fictional absurdities, but because I see the benefit, both to myself and the world I live in, of adopting the philosophy that underpins the belief, whether the story is literally true or not.

“To make something special, you just have to believe it’s special.” So goes a line from the film Kung Fu Panda. I find it hard to disagree. Literal truth, philosophical truth, and spiritual truth are not all necessarily synonymous. It’s how you apply the truths you hold dear that ultimately make the difference.    

To that end, I have no doubt that a dogmatic by-the-book Christian would be uncomfortable with the spiritual decor in our house, at Christmas and otherwise. My nativity scenes and Advent wreath coexist peacefully with our pagan statuary and our Wheel of the Year plaque, which will soon turn from Samhain to Yule. We'll probably enjoy a little bûche de Noël, or even burn an actual Yule log in the fire pit, as we observe the solstice and cheer on the Oak King's annual defeat of the Holly King as the days start to get longer and we slowly emerge from darkness into light.

I suppose a bit of explanation is in order. My wife has an affinity for Taoist and pagan spirituality, and I myself walked the pagan path for a while before (sort of) coming full circle on my long spiritual journey. And I still admire the way those ancient primitive traditions bring us into closer harmony with the natural world and the rhythms of the changing seasons. But perhaps even more than that, I’m drawn to the way they elevate the nurturing gentleness and compassion, the yin, of the Sacred Feminine, which is lacking in the all-male Trinity and is something we dearly need more of in our violent and angry world, burning with the heat of yang male aggression.

Don’t tell the priest at the Latin Mass I attend, but I see Mary, Sophia, and the Holy Spirit, the indwelling Comforter, all as aspects of the feminine “half” of the Divine. Even beyond that, I regard them as accessible symbols of the Great Mother, the Tao, the infinite fruitful womb from which the ten thousand things arise, the natural order of the universe itself, that which guides and cares for all who follow her gentle ways, who find her in the natural world, and who honor and love her by living in harmony with her.

I’m not one of those all-religions-are-the-same people. That’s not my point, and it’s simply not true to say that Buddhism is Shinto is Islam is Christianity. My point is more that once you know the rules, you can break them, inasmuch as you can identify common threads and synthesize them into a worldview that magnifies the best of all the traditions you happen to observe and honor. I’ve been a student of religion for most of my adult life, and my explorations and wanderings have left me with a concept of God that has more to do with a sort of impersonal creative force, a universal mind or consciousness, the natural order, thought itself, or even a kind of elemental love. It’s something like the Hindu concept of Brahman, or, indeed, the Chinese concept of the Tao, rather than a perpetually enraged deity who casts into eternal torment anyone who slips up and breaks the rules. If God is really love, as the apostle John says, then God can’t be that God. It doesn’t compute.

And I think that’s one of the things Jesus came to tell us – that the Father desires mercy over sacrifice, that he wants reconciliation and forgiveness, that he wants us to focus less on exacting adherence to lists of rules, like the Pharisees did, and more on extending our hand to those in need, like the Good Samaritan did.

That’s what the Eastern Orthodox call theosis. You become more like God by becoming more like the man who, according to Christian theology, literally was God – in other words, what God would look like if God were Man. “God became Man so that Man could become like God,” said St. Athanasius. That notion probably sounds blasphemous to contemporary Western Christian ears, especially those outside the ancient Catholic and Orthodox traditions, where the theological notion of total depravity holds stronger sway. But I think Jordan Peterson made an excellent observation when, in commenting on Orthodox theology, he saw the point of being a Christian as “picking up your cross and stumbling up the damn hill,” in imitation of Christ.

That’s the same point Athanasius was making. If Christ was both fully human and fully divine, then by grafting ourselves on to Christ, by imitating his ways and following in his footsteps, by picking up our cross and following him, we can learn to infuse our flawed and broken humanity with the goodness of divinity. No, we’re probably not going to reach Christ-like heights of goodness in this life. Saints are saints, after all, because their exceptional lives are, well, the exception and not the rule. But at least we’re not consigned to being no more than Luther’s snow-covered dunghills, our inherent filth only ever covered and concealed by the purity of Christ. That’s a view that, whether it intends to or not, proclaims that Christ, the Son of God, lacks the ability to seep into our being and transform us on the inside. That, to me, seems far more blasphemous than anything Athanasius wrote down in the formative years of Christianity. God, after all, declared his creation good, and woe to those who call good evil, and evil good. It's all right there in the scriptures for anyone to see.

To me, the beauty of the Christmas story is that it gives us a light to illuminate the way toward theosis. It holds the potential to lift us up, to change our lives, to make this world a better place for the ones we will eventually leave behind. In imitation of Mary, we have to be the ones who demonstrate the faith to trust in the divine plan and to birth Christ anew into a world in dire need of his love, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, and selfless sacrifice.

Too often, we reduce Christianity to a kind of quid pro quo: accepting Jesus as your savior so you can go to heaven when you die. That’s an awfully low bar, and it ultimately does little to transform the world around us, or ourselves. This, I think, is why Jesus said to the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you.” It’s not something that can be observed, “nor will people say ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is,’” Jesus told them. It’s already here. Right here, right now. You just have to find it within yourself, and Christ came to Earth to show us how to do that, to unlock the secret, to show us the Way, his Way, that lay latent within us. In the words of Po, again from Kung Fu Panda: “There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.”

Along the same lines, I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that the Chinese word “Tao” translates as “the Way.” The first Christians called themselves followers of the Way. So what, really, is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”? It’s the imitation of Christ, which is reflected in the natural order of the universe, and in the pursuit of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Therein lies what Christ called the Father. Therein lies love.

So my hope, even though it may be a fool’s hope, is that we might someday transcend our petty little turf wars, stop erecting walls, and embrace the inherent goodness of the stories that have for centuries united our culture. So what if Christianity appropriated pagan symbols and customs? So what if your neighbor’s idea of the Christmas story is a little bit different from yours? Christmas isn’t about dogma on one hand, or about throwing out the baby Jesus with the bathwater on the other. It’s not even about being pagan versus Christian. It’s about embracing the spirit of the law over the letter of the law, and following the Sermon-on-the-Mount example that was given to us as our moral, ethical, and indeed spiritual heritage. There may arguably be a time for “either-or” decisions in our lives. But Christmas transcends all that. It’s a holiday with a “both-and” spirit, a time that unites us in humility and hope, with a Way laid out before us, illuminated by the light of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

That’s not something to cast aside lightly. In fact, it’s the best Christmas gift we could ever hope for.

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