I write this on the Winter Solstice when the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light.
For the past five years, 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 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 because you do not like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes you lose out on a wonderful meal; you throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry. That baby is Jesus’ message, now lost in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, and on the other, co-opted and distorted by religious dogma into petrified historicity, or rarefied into divine balderdash, making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as communion wafers. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded.
My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner, away from both the commercial din and the 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; no translation necessary. His words, like a loaf of bread, 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 to 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 amaze me that, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is renewed, further drowning his message under pointless calendrical calculations or by those who try 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 the good 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.
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 be 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. But the kingdom is within you.”
It is the same notion contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ occurring in the sacred Hindu Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE): ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its original, pure, primordial state, is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the ground and origin of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said: “We’re all stardust.”
The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi once 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 that simple truth, he offers the keys to this inner realm: “change and become like little children.”
Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it this way: All your words, Jesus, were one word: “Wakeup!”
I take it as an invitation to return to my primordial state; back to the way I was before the blank slate of my essence was carved with the “thou shall’s” and “thou shalt not’s” 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 would play with; when I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive; full of passion and compassion; when I could cry without shame or compunction; when my days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present; when everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awareness and delight; when I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy; when I was trustful, accepting, open, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder.
The world and distorted reality we’ve built around ourselves often impede our way back into that realm by cloaking it under what I imagine as the dark veil of an unchanging Winter’s Solstice – the darkness of our prejudices, intolerance, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, and vanities. The sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.
A sensitive and honest-minded man, said writer Fernando Pessoa, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.
That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual: to illume my way back. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’s birthday.
And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and invite you to sit at the table and feast.
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