‘This myth is realized today in us’: On the deep meaning of Christmas

Botticelli's "Mystical Nativity" (circa 1500-1501)

Botticelli’s “Mystical Nativity” (circa 1500-1501)

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.

* * *

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)

* * *

[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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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.)

* * *

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)

* * *

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.)

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on December 24, 2011, in Religion & Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    I listened to an interview with Varla Ventura on Coast to Coast AM. She was discussing her book about Christmas stories and folklore.

    http://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Troll-Yuletide-Stories-ebook/dp/B006C3WMIC/ctoc

    Between Varla Ventura and the people calling in, it was an interesting show. I was familiar with some of what was brought up, but it’s easy to forget about the other side of Christmas and it is good to be reminded. Most of Christmas has little to do with Christianity. And a lot of the folklore of this time of the season is rather dark.

    Our modern tradition of celebrating joyously is only half of the story. It’s the darkest time of the year, the time of short days and cold, when in the past there was little food available and many dangers. It’s when the sun stands still and spirits, ghosts and ghouls come out to haunt and torment. It’s a time of fear when those who have been bad are punished, when those who venture outside can come to untimely ends. And in America we forget about Santa’s not-so-friendly sidekick.

    http://varlaventura.wordpress.com/2011/12/23/beware-the-scandanavian-christmas-troll/

    http://www.redwheelweiser.com/downloads/9781619400139_the_christmas_troll.pdf

    Plus, there is all that cool stuff about Siberian shamans, magical mushrooms and flying reindeer. We forget the magical part of Christmas, the supernatural, the awe-inspiring unknown of the dark time of the year. Santa is the demi-god of the season, a manifestation of the divine; and his workers, his minions the elves exist behind the scenes of our reality doing whatever it is they do.

    We celebrate as an act of sympathetic magic, hoping that the sun will rise again and warm days will be around the corner. When something ends, it isn’t known what will begin, in this case what the next year will be like. In making our New Year’s resolutions, we pray for good fortune that will be bestowed upon us, we ask that the forces beyond the human sphere will assist us instead of blocking and antagonizing us in our hopes and aspirations.

    The Christmas celebration is ritual magick, an invocation of a seasonal spirit, a bringing down of the divine into this miserable earthly realm and an appeasing of the cthonic beings that live among us. We put out the milk and cookies so that the hungry elves and spirits will be sated. We sacrifice evergreen trees, a symbol of eternal life. We light up our houses to keep the darkness at bay and to ressurect the solar deity that has died, standing still on the solar cross. We tell stories of the newborn king who shall save us all who worship him. We give presents to celebrate the ideal and hope of goodwill, the archetype and spiritual force of bounty.

    Even in our consumerism, we are practicing ritual magick. We buy and we give, the flow of money an act of faith in our society and our way of life. Most retail businesses make most of their money during the winter holidays. Some may see this as mere gross materialism. Yes, it is a celebration of material life, but there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that life is material, that the world we live in is material. The only thing to criticize is how often we forget the magical quality present in our stories and traditions, in our rituals and celebrations. There is real power in such collective actions and intentions when they are focused by ancient symbols and rites.

    We collectively envision the world as a better place, envision ourselves as better people. We watch movies that teach us about lost souls learning the meaning of Christmas, the reason of the season. Even when we easily are overcome by anxiety and fear, greed even as shoppers compete and we spend money we should be saving, we do so because we feel a compulsion to ensure that everything is just right, to ensure the ritual is a success. Maybe once the family gets together there will be complaints and arguments, but it’s more important about what we strive to be. We put on our best clothes or our best faces and we try to get into the holiday mood… and the social expectations of it all may feel overwhelming. Still, we all play our part. Even many atheists and non-Christians join in the festivities. We may not know why it is important, but we know it is. That is the nature of traditions, especially those with deep religious significance.

    To see it as a battle between baby Jesus and the Satanic forces of capitalism (God and Mammon) is to miss the point, so it seems to me. Christians, maybe more than anyone, too often miss the real Spirit of the Season.

    Christianity is based on an ancient solar myth with Jesus as the solar god-man who has taken many forms. Darkness and light are like Yin and Yang. Jesus descends to Hell to save the damned before rising to Heaven. At this time of year, we focus so much on the birth of our savior that we forget that death precedes birth in the spiritual realm. It’s at the Winter Solstice that we are reminded that God as Jesus was born into this world, that spirituality isn’t just about being saved in the afterlife. It’s an opportunity to see God as being a force on earth and throughout mankind, among family and friends, among neighbors and communities. We manifest God by taking care of each other, by helping the poor, by giving freely. The Divine is here with us, all around us, the world alive with Spirit and spirits.

  2. Then you guys have some really psychologically or spiritually subversive stuff going on there? Consumerism you say? It tells a lot that the Christians are dependent on the historical validity for the myth or story to mean anything to them – they are just as materialistic. It does not matter whether it’s a fact, it’s a story, what does it mean to you? There are stories all over the place and they drive people’s lives, even start major philosophies that lead to world-changing scientific discoveries (okay, that’s just hyperbole 🙂 but I’m making an argument). Aesop wrote many fables so does it mean that just because grasshoppers can’t talk, you shouldn’t take the mental food Aesop or whoever wrote it offers?

    The joy aka materialism, as Marmalade says, is “only half the story”. If Christians believe also that it’s a fight between God and mammon or Satan, they are also materialistic, as I showed in the first paragraph (I don’t really mean to argue but I have to explain my unconventional thoughts). The joy is only half the story, there’s a spirit to christmas and a silent mind can hear the breaths of the wider community and the voices of all these people, all experiences that tap into the communal sense and insert the individual smugly in there, period.

    This is a spirit and it’s as if Man is born (as can be gleaned from your quotes). Whether it’s just because it’s so close to the new year so has made so many accept it and celebrate it as if they were Christians, I dunno. But, it sure as hell has a tremendous global scale – the entire world jumping together. I think I have ‘materialized’ the spirituality of the season especially, as it is now.

  3. Excellent post.

    I went on a blind date many years ago. My date had looked at my website, where I had described myself as a “Buddhist Christian.”

    “How can you be a Buddhist Christian?” she asked.

    I tried to explain it to her. But she just couldn’t grasp the concept. Needless to say, that was our one and only date.

  4. Allo Mr. Cardin,

    My apologies for the off-topic response, but could you provide any updates as to your writing and editing in 2012? Are you currently writing? Any expected story publications for this year? Any completed work that is, thus far, unpublished? And is the anthology _Holy Horrors_ still alive in light of Ash-Tree’s hibernation, coma, or pseudo-death (whatever it is)? Thank you.

    -E.S.-

    • Thanks for the query, E.S. Regarding Holy Horrors, it is, again, deceased. Maybe to be resurrected in some future ebook edition, but presently it’s a nonstarter. Regarding my own writing and editing, I am now, and have been for the past year-plus, in the midst of a major creative recalibration and reorienation, and the future of my writing career — including whether there will be one at all — is an open question. I’m not talking about creative block but a profound shift in priorities and values, mostly occurring as a spontaneous spiritual/psychological event of the “awakening” sort. It looks like my identity as a horror writer, at least, is over and done with. Other issues are still up in the air. I’m presently writing the introduction to a friend’s forthcoming short fiction collection. Other than that, all of my current writing is not for publication.

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