Today is the observance of the annual cease fire on the war on Christmas. Christmas wins, again. In celebration, people wallow waist deep in shredded gift wrap and prepare the armistice feast.
Once proper tribute is paid to the default holy day we take a moment to acknowledge the alternate choices on the menu, such as Hanukkah — a minor Jewish observance that got caught up in the Christmas gravitational pull — and Kwanzaa. Some Buddhist sects observe “Bodhi Day” — the anniversary of the enlightenment of the Buddha — in December also. But this is a day dedicated to silent meditation on the ephemeral nature of all physical things, so those who observe it like to get it out of the way early in the month.
A less rigorous way to observe Bodhi Day is to rent a copy of “Little Buddha” and watch Keanu Reaves re-enact the enlightenment of Prince Siddhartha. Although some Buddhists really hated this film, I was charmed by Reaves’s portrayal of the World-Honored One. Especially the part where the Prince gets flustered when his Dad says no, he can not go off into the woods and become a wandering holy man like all the other guys. Like, dude.
Some people knock Kwanzaa as a “made up” holiday, but then, so is Christmas. By now you’ve probably heard that the date, not provided in Scripture, was chosen to compete with the Roman Saturnalia and the pagan Yule. Recognition of December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth dates from the fourth century or so, however, so it was made up a long time ago.
Then there’s the question of how much of the traditional Birth of Jesus story is true, and indeed, how much of the Jesus Is God story is true. This is a matter that needs to be taken on faith, since historians tend to be skeptical. Some scholars like to point out that the virgin birth-in-a-manger story was left out of the earliest gospel, Mark, indicating that when Mark was written (ca. 70 AD) the story wasn’t in circulation yet. The gospel of Luke, which contains the most complete virgin birth story, was written several years later, possibly as late as 130-150 AD. The process of the deification of Jesus was by then well under way.
(For a rollicking good read on how the process ended — including riots in the streets, political intrigue, and the alleged murder of one Church Father at the hands of another — I recommend When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome by Richard Rubenstein. If you liked I, Claudius, you’ll love WJBG.)
But in her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews : A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Professor Paula Fredriksen of Boston U depicts the historical Y’shuah as a devout Jew who would have been appalled at the notion that he was God. Frederiksen and other scholars argue that Jesus was really about purifying Judaism, not starting a whole ‘nother religion to compete with it, and certainly not claiming to be a world redeemer or messiah. First-generation Christianity was considered to be a Jewish sect. I believe it wasn’t until after the destruction of the Temple (70 AD), when being Jewish was a tad, um, dangerous, that Christians drew a bright line between them and those other people. By then many of the members were Greek-speaking gentiles, and non-Jewish notions about who Jesus was and what he had been about were taking hold.
Then as now, people who feel the pain of life seek comfort in the sheltering arms of religion. But, once comforted, the religious have an unfortunate tendency to make others miserable for the sake of the faith. Human history is a long tale of sacrifice, oppression, inquisitions, war, and martyrdom in the name of religion. Religions themselves tend to follow the same trajectory — Once the Founder is gone, his original vision and teachings are quickly watered down by lesser followers. Sects form and begin to squabble with each other. Religious institutions and their leaders are corrupted, then reformed, then corrupted again.
So, it is not at all surprising that many grow hostile to religion. There is so much obvious hypocrisy and humbuggery in most religious institutions one might wonder why anyone with two brain cells to rub together gets taken in. But then there’s that pain of life thing, and the urge to look for someone or something more powerful than oneself to take the pain away.
And the fact is that religion can be redemptive. Yes, it has given us such loathesome creatures as Torquemada and James Dobson, but it’s also inspired Albert Schweitzer, Ghandi, and Aung San Suu Kyi. It may be that most of the popular beliefs of the major monotheistic religions — God, Lucifer, angels — can be traced back to ancient Persian folk tales, and much religious faith amounts to an emotional crutch. Yet an instant of pure experience — grace, epiphany, kensho — can be genuinely transformative. And I believe that beneath much of the fruitless hamster-wheel existance of modern life there is a deeply buried longing for a true spiritual path, a longing that modern Christianity rarely addresses. This same longing likely was felt by a Jewish fellow named Y’shuah who lived 2,000 years ago, and a king’s son named Siddhartha, who lived about five centuries earlier.
Instead of living the lives they’d been expected to live — one as a carpenter, and one as a king — both Y’shuah-Jesus and Siddhartha took off on their own difficult paths. Both struggled through a dark night of the soul (Jesus in the Wilderness, Siddhartha under the Bodhi Tree). And both seem to have found Something.
Jesus urged his followers to seek the Kingdom of Heaven. It was, he said, like a treasure hidden in a field; one who finds such a treasure will sell everything else he has to buy that field. Institutional Christianity, on the other hand, tries to replace the challenge of the spiritual path with easily digestible dogmas, comforting totems, and tribal identity. It’s spiritual distraction, not spiritual direction. And if there’s a better way to trivialize the life of Jesus than by whining that clerks in Target don’t say “Merry Christmas,” I can’t think of it.
But now it’s Christmas. We’ve got a day set aside to give each other presents and enjoy one another’s company, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And let’s remember Y’shuah, whoever he was, and honor his struggles, whatever they were. And if you ever feel an urge to do some spiritual seeking, I say heed the call and go for it.
May all beings find a true path.