LOOKING FOR BRAHMAN IN A MANGER
Every year millions of people celebrate, observe or at least stop to think of an event that is supposed to have occurred in December nearly 2000 years ago. Even people who are sticklers for facts and chronology work towards the date 25th December, marking it off for Jesus Christ, before and after whom, Time itself is divided. Although until the fourth century Christian churches celebrated Christmas on 6th June and the Armenian Church continues to do so even today, according to the almanac and the show of light in the skies over Judaea, Jesus of Nazareth was probably born some time in September. Through millennia, historians like Joseph A Fitzmyer [20th century] and Bishop Clement of Alexandria [4th century] have thought that it might have been as early as March.
Why then do we observe the date in December? For centuries, a weeklong Roman [pagan] holiday of Saturnalia was a period when Roman courts were closed [17th Ė 25th December] .The Greek poet and historian Lucian in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia describes widespread intoxication, public nudity and many forms of license all of which went unpunished because the law was on holiday. In the fourth century AD, Christian Rome promised their converts that they could continue to celebrate Saturnalia every year. To undermine and bury the pagan festival and the memory of what it had stood for, Christian leaders named the concluding day of Saturnalia as Jesusí birthday. Interestingly, in the 17th century, the Puritans of Massachusetts took such a bitter stand against the known pagan origin of 25th December, that Christmas celebrations and observances were banned between 1659-81 in their communities.
Like all history shrouded by myth there are different accounts for us to relate to. The Gospels do not even agree about the details of Jesusí birth. Luke and Matthew say it was in Bethlehem. The shepherds visit the baby only in Luke; the Wise Men show up only in Matthew (no mention of their number); Markís Gospel, the earliest account doesnít even mention the sacred birth. John is equally silent: no angels sang over Jesusí crib in the account according to him. Yet so strong is the human need to objectify, to adore, offering worship to something that symbolizes the sacred, that the story of Christmas in which the Master of the Universe lies in a manger holds a marvelous and eternal appeal for everyone, not just Christians.
Though the New Testament says that he had existed from the beginning of time, though he would later prove that he was not bound by his body or the rules of gravity, perhaps the wise men going in search of the special Child symbolizes also, our delusion that God is actually to be found only in a particular place of worship. The all-pervading consciousness is everywhere and in everyone just like the mysterious message of the Kingdom of God which puzzled nearly everyone who heard it. [Hard to understand for a species who love to build monuments to people.]
Perhaps we could rethink what is sacred and what is worshipped and what the message of the birth of Christ still is, buried somewhere under the orgy of food and gift-giving amongst the already well-dressed and extremely well fed. Because against the politico-religious background of the times --- fraught with danger --- the baby in the manger had come to deliver a new doctrine: man could save himself through love, repentance, giving up of habitual ways of thinking/acting, and faith. Right through his life Christ would emphasize the non-materiality of life and the purpose of his birth and work, but few would understand him. ďDo you understand all these things?Ē was a question he would grow up and ask something we could ask ourselves every day.
So Christmas was certainly not December. It was probably not even in the 1st century AD but rather in the 3rd, though compared to the intensity of Christís message about his Father, none of these details matter. Jesus Christís arrival was proof that the divine mystery could indeed exist in man. The incarnation of the Divine amongst humans is Godís refusal to make a distinction between divinity and humanity. Both a statement and a promise of love no matter what, the sacred birth was an announcement that a theology which draws distinctions and tells you how to get from the human to the divine is over. What is the message of the Kingdom of God? That the future is now present and can be fulfilled on earth. That revelation, which is also the central message of the Upanishads [which even most Hindus donít fully believe because they have not taken the trouble to study it] appearing as it did amongst a people bound by the Book, was revolutionary. Christmas is where Christís message lives and all else is Saturnalia.
[The writer is Editor-Translations, Oxford University Press (India) and committed to interfaith dialogue]
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