This Christmas season it is Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, much more than the Holy babe Himself who fills my imagination. This is not because I am a Catholic. I am not, but all my life I have endeavoured to be Catholic in my outlook, unfettered by the assumptions and barriers that human beings read men - evolve and impose on others. Incidently, I have always felt amused that Catholics and Protestants see Mary as a bone of theological contention and denominational exclusion between them. I respect and emulate Jesus as a human person. I respect Mary too in a similar vein. I believe that the difference between human beings and God is one of the degree, not of kind. God is the perfection of the virtues that comprise our humanity. If we can perfect these virtues we too will become God-like. That is the quintessential spiritual challenge.

Let me tell you why it is Mary, and not Jesus, who fills my mind at this time. On 1, November 2005 I started a yatra from Tankara in Gujarat the birth place of Maharshi Dayanand to Amritsar in Panjab. The purpose of this yatra was to raise people's awareness concerning the abominable practice of female foeticide and infanticide resulting in an alarming imbalance in sex-ratio in most of our states. Census of 2001 has brought to light the depravity that has ensconced itself in our consumerist way of life. In some of our prosperous states, the sex-ratio is as low as 850 females to 1000 males. Christmas must take note of the census at least during this Christmas season, if only for the reason that the background to the birth of Jesus was a census decreed by Caesar Augustus. But for this, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth, and not in Bethlehem. That would have been quite a different story!

So, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of Caesar Augustus. But he was born at all because of Mary. Humankind, and not merely Christians, would have been poorer without her courage. It is very likely that some self-styled well-wishers would have advised her to terminate what was - from social and orthodox perspective even today - a very inconvenient and scandalous pregnancy. Mary must be hailed, respected and thanked for not conforming tamely to the norms that the society was eager to impose on her. We get an inkling of these norms from the fact that Joseph, when he came to know she was pregnant before they were married, decided to put her away quietly, which was the maximum justice he could think of doing to her. Mary could as well have been stoned to death for conceiving outside wedlock, socially sanctioned and religiously sanctioned.

The tragedy is that far too many women conform too tamely to social norms and practices dictated by others. I am a swami and I do not know the intricacies of married life. But nothing in the world will ever convince me that a woman would want to snuff out the life blossoming in her womb willingly. Every selective, sex-specific foeticide is a war that the society wages in womb of a woman. The woman is only a battlefield. She is forced in ways subtle and broad- to consent, which is no consent at all. That a woman will, unless coerced, agree to the murder of a foetus for the sole offense that it is going to eventuate into a girl and not a boy is an insult to womanhood as a whole.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is at the centre of my Christmas because she had the courage and true godliness to claim her right to be a free person. She obeyed God and her conscience first and only man-centered social norms thereafter. That, incidently, is the secret of human freedom. As long as we obey the authority of men unthinkingly and tamely, we remain unfree. It is only by exercising out right to obey God, rather than men, that we become free. If I remember right, that was the message that Apostle Peter gave almost at the beginning of his ministry as a wandering preacher. I will obey, he said, God rather than men.

So, there is a subversive side to Christmas, which Christians simply gloss over. Mary was, if you like, an outrageous rebel. She would not have mothered Jesus, if she were a nice and tame woman, enslaved by the norms and codes of the times. The all-important question is if the Christmas that we celebrate can really accommodate this liberting spiritual message. Is our Christmas, in other words, a religious affair or a spiritual celebration? What is the difference, you may well ask.

Let us go entirely by what Jesus says. According to Jesus, the essence of spirituality is human liberation. "I have come", proclaimed Jesus, "to set the captives free." Jesus was not referring to political prisoners. Not many of us are. But all of us are prisoners of one religion or another. The mission of Jesus was to liberate people from unspiritual religiosity: religiosity degraded by men and the vested interest they hide under a mask of religiosity. Why do you think Jesus was born in cattle shed? God was making a new beginning outside the systems of authority and control maintained so rigidly by men. This is simple common sense. Do you think, even God would have some space within our dogmatic systems and structures?

As practically every social philosopher and psychologist has recognized, it does not take long for the social, political and religious systems we create to become oppressive. Whatever is created and controlled by man becomes hostile to human freedom. To that extent, there is a need to rebel against systems of tyranny. This becomes a spiritual duty. But the real issue is this. How can we make sure that our rebellion is spiritual and not anarchic? Mary, the mother of Jesus, would say at once that this could be done only by ensuring that our rebellion is spiritual. To do that, we need to ensure that we do not rebel willfully. The primary aim is not to rebel against man, but to obey God. In an ungodly and depraved religious establishment obedience to God can only seem rebellious and anarchic. It is for this reason that, as Jesus said, prophets would necessarily be persecuted by their own people. The more corrupt a religious community is, the more cheerfully and self-righteously it persecutes its prophets!

Given the circumstances of Jesus' birth, he could have been born only in a cattle-shed. But this is not something over which we need to be sentimental. We do not have to feel sorry for Jesus! Instead, we need to feel sorry for ourselves! Very likely, some of us were born in comfortable circumstances precisely because our mothers did not have Mary's grit and spiritual freedom. Perhaps we know this intuitively. Why else do we celebrate this birth in a cattle-shed? Why do we feel such a deep sentimental affinity to this uncomfortable birth? Mary will tell you gladly and humbly that giving birth to one's baby in a cattle-shed is a privilege and not a pain if that is the price a woman has to pay for obeying God rather than men. Our religiosity comprises almost wholly of mindless conformity to the authority of men. God is invoked, if at all, only as the icing on the cake. This is all the more so in respect of women. The name of God is often taken in vain; that is, for an ungodly purpose. That purpose is to sanctify and legitimize the will of man. Christmas has nothing to do with conformity. It is a festival on non-conformity!

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