Christmas in Paradise
Here at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on the beautiful Paradise Island here in the Bahamas, where Imam Jamal and I are blessed to be presenting this week, I've been thinking about the celebration of Christmas. Last night, Swami Swaroopananda, the leader of the community, gave a lovely teaching about the holiness that descended into the world with the birth of Jesus, the birth of the Christ. Then each of the other presenters was invited to make a comment about Christmas and share a Christmas blessing with the community.
My comments were different from the others. I shared a little of my early experiences of Christmas, a time of the year when Jews often feel radically different, out of the loop, invisible, as if the entire country was celebrating what we did not, what we could not.
Christmas not always such a sweet holiday
When I was in public school, I was taught by my parents to mouth the C-word during the yearly Christmas carol practices and performances. Not only did "Christ" refer to something and someone we did not believe in, it would, my mother said, be a denial of our own identity were we to pronounce and celebrate the focus of the Christmas holiday.
When I was beginning high school, there were times when I was physically attacked for being Jewish. In the ninth grade, consistent threats and punches taught me to have migraine headaches and pray that I could stay home from school. My best friend, with whom I rode the school bus, told me that he could no longer come to my house because his parents found out that I was Jewish.
So I mentioned to the group, here at this wonderfully spiritually-oriented ashram, that Christmas may not always be such a sweet holiday for some of us. I mentioned that the teachings of Jesus, while so spiritual and loving in the main, led to persecution of my people in his name. There was no way that I could speak about Jesus or about Christmas without naming this reality.
The Light comes into the world through each of us
I spoke about the Light that entered the world for so many with the birth of Jesus, but I also reminded people that the message of this Light was sabotaged by those who translated it into violence against those who did not share their beliefs. Perhaps that happens with all great teachers and teachings -- they become translated through the ego needs of individuals and communities to defend acts of cruelty and oppression.
And I prayed that all could realize that this Light that came into the world with Jesus reflects the Light that comes into this world through each and every one of us. The teaching of every great spiritual master urges the student to awaken to the Light and the Love within themselves. Jesus, as a great spiritual teacher, was no different.
My Christmas prayer
My Christmas prayer is a simple one: That we all might count this among the days that we are reminded of the Presence yearning to awaken through us as Light and as Love. It is crucial, I believe, to remember carefully how easy it is to eclipse the spiritual teaching beneath the shadow of ego needs to be "right," and "better," and "the only way." Perhaps it is necessary to witness these needs within ourselves in order to transcend them to truly be a bearer of Love and Light to each other and to our world.
When Jesus was asked what he considered to be the most important teaching of Torah, his response was the same as another great first-century rabbi named Rabbi Akiba: V'ahavta l'rayecha kamocha, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. While so often read as a commandment, it may well be a description of how it is for us all. We can only love another to the extent that we can love ourselves.
To totally accept ourselves as we are in this moment opens the way for our own fuller evolution. To love ourselves opens the way for us to love others.
Driving home following a sermon, very early in my career, I found I had two companions. One was the not so pleasant energy of a person who found what I had shared to be disagreeable -- like many of us, I tend to discount favorable reviews and honor unfavorable comments beyond (I hope!) their due. This is something I've witnessed and struggled with all my life. It reminds me that I still have much work to do. Perhaps it is also a way to avoid the consequences of those favorable reviews and comments, pride and self-aggrandizement.
The other companion is some kind of wisdom that shares with me things that would have enriched the teaching just completed.
In this case, I wish I had shared some of the preparation for my Christmas talk. Consulting with Google, I had learned that it wasn't until the 4th century that the date of Jesus's birth was determined to be December 25th. Until the year 336 CE, his birth had not been celebrated at all.
I found that fascinating, but hadn't fully realized the implications until just a few moments ago. So this is what I wish I had shared with the group on Christmas Eve:
December 25th is not the Messiah's only birthday
There is scholarly agreement that it was in the 4th century, shortly after Constantine became Christian and Christianity was suddenly a political power, that the date of Jesus's birth was determined to be December 25th. With that came a kind of institutionalization that began differentiating among various traditions and texts to determine which were to be seen as authentic. The dating of the birth of Christ was one of these determinations.
It suddenly occurred to me that they were absolutely correct: December 25th is the birth of Messiah. But that is not the only correct date for that birth. Messiah is a Universal Presence awakening on this planet to bring greater Love, Light, and Healing to the world.
I wish I had asked each person in the audience to shout out their very own birth dates, because Messiah was born equally on each. Messiah is born Eternally, Universally. How else could it be? What marked Jesus as exceptional was his willingness, even though it cost him his life, to express that Christ Presence openly, fervently, and loudly. As a Universal Presence, that Messiah is Universal -- that Messiah is born within each and every being that has ever lived or shall ever live.
"Will the Real Messiah Please Stand Up?"
I have often shared an image that comes from an old TV show called "To Tell the Truth," in which a celebrity panel tries to guess who among three people is telling the truth about being who he or she says they are. After the guesses, the host of the show says, "Will the real _______ please stand up?" and the authentic truck driver, brain surgeon, or adventurer rises.
My image is that the Messiah will come when the call will go out, "Will the Real Messiah Please Stand Up?" and we all rise. When just one or just a few rise, then the rest of us cannot tolerate that, we project the parts of ourselves we reject onto them, and, in one way or another, we will destroy or discredit them.
So what will create the environment for us all to recognize that the Christ, the Presence of God, has been born in us?
The traditional Jewish Orthodox view is that Messiah will come when all Jews celebrate Shabbat according to Orthodox teachings. My friend, Rabbi David Zeller, of blessed memory, once suggested another approach. He said that he believed that Messiah would come when the Jews who celebrated an Orthodox Shabbat loved those who did not, and when the Jews who did not celebrate in any Orthodox way loved those who did. Then, he said, Messiah would come.
I think he had exactly the right idea, but it needs to be expanded. Messiah will come--we will all be able to rise to that call--when our hearts open to the Light and the Love that is the core of our Being. Messiah will come when we are able to love ourselves--just as we are in this moment--with such open hearts that we are able to love others as we love ourselves.
How I can celebrate Christmas -- even as a Jew
Christmas is every day. We might celebrate it on a single day of the year, but that does not restrict it, just as we celebrate it as the Christian Christ, but that does not, in truth, restrict the Universal nature of that Presence. The Christ, the Divine Presence, the Light, the Love, that is called by various names in all the spiritual traditions of the world, is One. That is the Truth awaiting recognition and celebration.
That Truth allows me to celebrate Christmas, even as a Jew. May we all awaken to the Light and the Love of that Christ Presence. What will flow is a greater love and a more profound kindness that finally realizes it is the very same love and kindness awakening within me as a Jew or a Christian, as a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist.
Everyday is a Christmas, the birth of Presence, waiting to be realized, waiting to be expressed, waiting to be celebrated. May the Christmas Light inspire us to share that Light with all aspects of ourselves, with the precious others with whom we share our lives, with all beings, and with our delicate and precious planet. May we be the inspiration that leads to the healing that needs to be.
Wholeheartedly, on this day, I greet simply and surely: