‘This myth is realized today in us’: On the deep meaning of Christmas
Most of my readers know that I grew up in a strongly evangelical Protestant tradition and went on to make the study of world religions, spiritualities, and philosophies a major part of my life. This informs all of my horror fiction (and in fact forms a great deal of its explicit substance), as well as my personal relationships and my basic intellectual and emotional outlook.
I have publicly described myself from time to time as an “agnostic Zen Christian.” But in the actual personal conversations and interactions that I’ve had in my life as a writer, and also in some of the philosophically/spiritually oriented posts that I’ve made here in the past, and in the articles I’ve written at Demon Muse, and in the other aspects of my online and authorial life, I think I’ve tended to display and support the first two parts of that self-description far more than the third. I’ve tended to show that I’m deeply agnostic, and deeply Zen-oriented (or Zen-Vedanta-nondual oriented), but the Christian part has received short shrift.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not a major part of my day-to-day life, both inner and outer. That’s especially true during the current season. I’m typing these words on Christmas Eve, and every year when this season rolls around, I find myself reading about, thinking about, and dwelling and meditating upon the deep meaning of the spiritual reality that is the substance of the Christmas holyday — as distinct from the Dantean inferno of consumerism that is the prevailing “spirit of the season” here in the United States.
Below are a number of passages from various books and authors that have proved meaningful to me in this regard over the years. I’ve arranged them so that they tell a coherent story, as it were, when read from start to finish, beginning with some clarifying statements about the historical and literary status of the birth narratives about Jesus and progressing to interpretations of the deep meaning of the whole idea of divine sonship. Christmas is, quite pointedly, about the “divine birth,” and this is something that doesn’t just, and doesn’t even primarily, refer to a once-only historical event that happened two millennia ago in a rural backwater of ancient Palestine. Maybe the following thoughts and statements to this effect will resonate with you as much as they do with me, regardless of your personal orientation toward religious and spiritual matters.
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We can’t even begin to see who Jesus was until we remove the layers of interpretation which the centuries have interposed between us and him, and which obscure his true face, like coat after coat of lacquer upon the vibrant colors of a masterpiece … We should set aside, first, the Christmas legend. We don’t have to eliminate it; it is beautiful and has its place; but we should realize that it is a fairy tale and, though it is suffused with the joyful spirit of Jesus, tells us nothing about his actual birth.
— Stephen Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus (1991)
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[M]ainline scholars do not see the stories of Jesus’s birth as historically factual reports, but as metaphorical narratives. Some Christians are uncomfortable with this conclusion. To some, denying the factuality of the virgin birth and the other spectacular happenings in the stories seems like denying the power of God. But that is not the issue. The question is not, “Can God do things like this?” Rather, the question is, “What kind of stories are these?” Many of the same Christians think that denying the virgin birth involves denying that Jesus is the “Son of God,” as if that status is dependent upon biological conception by God. And so in this context, I repeat what I said earlier: believe whatever you want about whether Jesus’s birth happened this way — now let’s ask, what do these stories mean? To argue about whether the stories narrate what actually happened most often distracts us from the meaning of the stories.
— Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (2006)
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Tonight [at the feast of Christmas] we are not concerned with celebrating a birthday. Anyone who gets bogged down in the story kills the living element in the message of this night. A religious message doesn’t refer to historical facts. Today the Savior is born to you. Not back then, a long time ago. In the feast of Christmas, as in all Christian feasts, we see realized the myth of the unfolding of eternity in time. This myth is realized today in us.
… Reality has two aspects: the essence of God and the creaturely. God expresses himself in creatures. We, too, are nothing but this word spoken by God. This is what the Christmas gospel wants to tell us. We are the reflection of his splendor and the image of his nature, as it says in the Letter to the Hebrews … That is the message of Christmas, which is all about our birth from God. We are meant as Jesus was meant. “Had Christ been born a thousand times in Bethlehem / And not in you, you would still be lost forever” (Angelus Silesius).
… This feast of Christmas should teach us about our transcendent origins and thus help us grasp our real dignity. It aims to bring home to us our identity with Jesus Christ so that Jesus Christ can take shape in us, as Paul says (Galatians 4:19), and so that we can be other Christs. Recognizing this is the most important task of our lives. We celebrate this feast so that we, too, may understand that we are God’s sons and daughters, that we, too, are “God-men,” and that the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism were meant for us too: “This is my beloved Son, this is my beloved Daughter.” We celebrate this feast so that for all our crassness, earthbound minds, and stupidity, we may notice that our origins are divine … We celebrate this feast so that one day it may also dawn on us that “I and the Father are one,” and “The kingdom of God is within us,” and “I am the light of the world.”
— Willis Jäger, The Search for the Meaning of Life: Essays and Reflections on the Mystical Experience (1995)
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HIS BIRTH IN ME. “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you . . .” (Galatians 4:19). Just as our Lord came into human history from outside it, He must also come into me from outside. Have I allowed my personal human life to become a “Bethlehem” for the Son of God? I cannot enter the realm of the kingdom of God unless I am born again from above by a birth totally unlike physical birth. “You must be born again” (John 3:7). This is not a command, but a fact based on the authority of God. The evidence of the new birth is that I yield myself so completely to God that “Christ is formed” in me. And once “Christ is formed” in me, His nature immediately begins to work through me.
— Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (1927)
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What is the truth about Christmas?
In the history of Christianity, if you believe you are the sole possessor of the truth then that belief has the power to corrupt your actions, even to the point of insanity — whether it’s the Catholic Inquisition or a big shopping spree. The Truth is inseparable from who you are. If you look for it in ideas, beliefs, or even gifts from the store, you will be deceived every time.
The true meaning of Christmas is that the very Being that you are is Truth. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Jesus speaks of the inner essence identity of every human being. Some Christian writers call this the “Christ within.” The real meaning of Christmas is to find that essential self that is universally experienced as the Christ within no matter what your cultural or religious upbringing is. As we approach the ceremonial date of the birth of Christ, and as many of you gather with friends and family, perhaps standing in the silence of the Christ within can keep bringing you back to Being – the eternal life that Christ promised human kind.
— Eckhart Tolle (21st cent.)
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When we say, “Come, Holy Spirit,” what do we mean? … We may look at the idea of “coming” as a biblical way of expressing the creative drive of “being,” and since God is pure Being, Being itself, then we are speaking about the creative drive of God.
… We can put the birth of Jesus within the context of this coming process. It is when we look at the birth of Jesus as part of an immense movement of the spirit that is bringing a new and powerful energy into the human energy form field and our individual form field that we see the birth of Jesus in the context that we can really celebrate. All the teachings of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke have been contrived to lead us to an advance in awareness, and we need not see them as historical documents. The best modern biblical scholarship does not treat those texts as purely historical scholarship. They are primarily teaching us how to advance to a higher manifestation of divine life.
The church has always taught us that contemplating the birth of Jesus is to enter into the Christ life. So the accounts in the texts of Matthew and Luke are not necessarily a factual account of Jesus’ birth, but a presentation of one human being in whom the Absolute has come, perfectly. Therefore they are a manual teaching us and leading us to our birth as Christ…as our coming. The Christ state of life is a rebirth, born of the movement of the spirit. Jesus brings us into the reign of God, out of the reign of the ego in which we suffer.
…Talking about the physical birth of Jesus is talking about the Christ state of life as a rebirth, born by the movement of the spirit. He is the one who brings us into the “reign of God” and out of the “reign of ego” in which we suffer. Just as Jesus’ coming process ended with his resurrection, so our process of coming into the experience of ourselves as a manifestation of the Absolute, of the Source, is a coming to a new mode of perception — metanoia.
…Luke 17:20 talks about the coming of the kingdom of God, which is one expression we use for coming to a higher and higher life. “Asked by the Pharisees when the coming of the kingdom of God would be, Jesus replied, ‘the coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce “There it is!” For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’” This Gospel koan, if you really understand it, will take you into enlightenment. It is an interior event, a psycho-mystical event. Your whole psyche changes. Your whole mode of perception must change, and then you are brought into the mystery which cannot be expressed.
— Thomas G. Hand, Crossing Over Together: Walking the Zen Christian Path (2006)
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Here in time we celebrate the eternal birth that God the Father bore and still bears constantly in eternity, and which is also now born in time, in human nature. St. Augustine says that this birth is happening continually. We should ask ourselves: If it doesn’t happen in me, what good is that birth after all? … We are all meant to be mothers of God… And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.
— Meister Eckhart (13th-14th cent.)