I write this on the Winter Solstice as the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light. On this day, I perform a simple ritual: I sit in quietude, light a candle, and read the words of Jesus.
Does that make me a Christian or Catholic?
No more than reading Buddha’s teachings makes me a Buddhist.
Does it matter?
It seems to me that walking away from a banquet just because we don’t like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes us lose out on a wonderful meal — we throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry.
That baby is Jesus’ message, now drowned in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, or co-opted and distorted on the other by religious dogma into petrified historicity and rarefied into canonical balderdash making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as a communion wafer. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded and that the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.
My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner far away from both the commercial din and religious sorcery. Once there, I eat with my hands, sink my teeth into Jesus’ flesh, and suck the marrow of his wisdom. I require no intermediaries to partake in the banquet, no miracles or High-Priest authority and no translation necessary. Like a plain loaf of bread, his words are simple, yet all-nourishing.
A ritual is the enactment of a myth, a symbolic image or narrative of the possibilities of human experience. By participating in the myth, I am put in accord with that wisdom.
The Winter Solstice marks the day when the sun ends its southernmost decline. Tomorrow, it will turn back north and begin its ascending cycle making light prevail over darkness once again. That is why, on December 25, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
It never ceases to baffle me how, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is stirred once again, further drowning his message under inane calendrical calculations or through attempts to debunk the Nativity narrative by pointing at the presence of sheep at the manger claiming they would have been corralled and not left out on such a cold night in Bethlehem.
Again, does it matter?
By focusing on the factual, the symbolic meaning is lost, and we deny ourselves its gifts.
I like to think of December 25 as the birth of what is possible in human experience; of the greater light we can kindle in ourselves to shine upon the world. Among Jesus’ teachings, I am always drawn more strongly by this one:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This is great news! That the highest peaks of human transformation are within our reach and not in some remote place at some distant point in the future once we’ve perfected our harp-playing skills.
When some Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would come, he answered: “God’s kingdom isn’t something you can see. There is no use saying, ‘Look! Here it is,’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ God’s kingdom is here, with you.”
In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus elaborates: “If those who lead you say — ‘See, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will go before you. The kingdom is within you.”
It’s the same idea contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ of the sacred Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE) — ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its primordial state, is identifiable with the Ultimate Reality and ground of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said, “we’re all stardust feeding off starlight.”
The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said that an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere far off in the heavens, not to be reached by us unaided. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far-fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness.
After Jesus delivers his simple truth, he offers the key to this inner realm:
“Change and become like little children.”
I take his words as an invitation to return to my primordial state. Back to the way I was before the blank slate of my innocence was scarred with the ‘thou shalls’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ of the world.
Back to the time I could take a boy by the hand and not find it unseemly. When neither race nor station dictated who I could play with. When I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive. Full of passion and compassion. When I could cry without shame. When days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present. When everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awe and delight. When I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy. The time when I didn’t pretend to have all the answers and was thus humble and insatiably curious. When I was trustful, accepting, authentic, vulnerable, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder. That sublime stage in life when we still believe in invisible friends and dare build castles in the sky with magic bricks made of phrases like, ‘I wonder…, What if…, and If only…’
The lens through which most of us apprehend the world is what blocks our way back into that holy realm by being blurred by the blight and shadow of an endless Winter’s Solstice — the blight of cynicism, apathy, egoism, pretense, prejudice, intolerance, fears, false pride, vanities and our unbridled greed.
The Unconquered Sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.
“If an honest-minded man is really concerned about evil and injustice in the world,” proposed writer Fernando Pessoa, “he will naturally begin his campaign by eliminating them at their nearest source: himself.”
That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual — to illume my way back to the source. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’ birthday.
And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas and invite you to sit at the banquet and feast.
I also invite you to join my mailing list.