The famed essayist G.K. Chesterton keenly observed that, if you really want to understand something, you have to either get way inside it or get way outside it. I have lived my whole life in the trappings of the Christian traditions, religious and otherwise — Baby Jesus, Christmas carols, Wise men, Christmas trees, gifts, turkey dinner and special dessert. Religious or not, my family’s Christmas celebration was the biggest holiday of the year, by far.
But what is it that is being celebrated here? What is the real heart of it all? To do that, you have to strip away all those trappings, get way outside of it all, and look at the bare bones of it all. Do that, and here is what you find. A child was born to a relatively poor family at a time when the territory now known as Israel was a province of the Roman empire. He would, in his lifetime, achieve no wealth, no position, not even much of a following. He lived the life of an itinerant preacher, and his only real claim to fame was that he sufficiently angered the local politicians to get himself arrested, humiliated, tortured and executed in the fashion of a common thief. He left no assets, no writings of any kind, and his following pretty much abandoned him.
Despite all of that, this man started a movement that took over all of Western Europe. That movement, more than any other influence, dictated the course of history in the West. Wars were waged in its name. Empires were created and merged and destroyed because of it. Some of history’s most heroic acts, and some of its most vile and horrendous crimes, claimed justification from it.
Perhaps the very strangest outcome of the man’s life is that, over the centuries, a host of people claiming to be his followers developed the practice of interpreting his teachings in various, and rather peculiar, ways, and then greeting those who held differing interpretations with hostility, discrimination, oppression and even war. Interpretations about what he said, and what he was, have spawned a seemingly endless list of such groups, each identifying its followers as the “true” Christians, and each identifying the other as entirely, and even repugnantly, wrong.
How then to dilute the truth out of this morass? To really stand outside all of this, one has to ignore all interpretations, even ignore the very notion of doctrine. What emerges, what you are left with, is nothing less than the very meaning of being human. In the worldview he describes and lives, nothing else matters — not class or caste, not wealth or power, not religious status or beliefs. The man had only one message, stated either directly or by analogy of one sort or another. No matter the context, his message was, stripped to its essence, always the same: our meaning as humans lies in being singlemindedly responsible for each other. Whatever his precise words may have been, there can be no doubt about their meaning. What he meant, and what he lived without hesitation or limit, is that we are made, and we are here, to take care of each other.
On its face, not a very earthshaking message, except that, for one, it rings absolutely true, and for another, he lived it to perfection. What he did was set an unquestionable ideal for every human being, an ideal that is the very measure of what it is to be human, an ideal that is actually available to every human being regardless of his or her place in life. Now there is a message that literally shakes the earth. No wonder those in power at the time wanted him dead. No wonder the Roman government wanted his followers expunged. And no wonder that, throughout the centuries, those who actually lived this message were persecuted in one way or another. The message puts power in its place, and power decidedly and profoundly doesn’t like it.
The message has been cruelly twisted and perverted throughout the centuries, and more than likely those who perverted it did so because they couldn’t handle the real message. The most common perversion has been to replace this quintessentially moral message with a commitment to doctrine, cunningly replacing the need for moral action with blind belief. Now one has only to believe in this or that, and by that simple means one attains eternal salvation, often to the exclusion of those who don’t buy your particular religious package. The contrast between such perversions and the true message could not be more stark. Jesus’ message is total dedication to others. That’s it. All the rest stands or falls on its fidelity to that moral polestar.
So, if that’s it, then what is Christmas, really? Why all this carrying on about the birth of this one child? Here’s why. Because, by living that extraordinary life, he has given me hope for meaning. His life is a guarantee that mine has true worth, true and inexhaustible value. Now the world is not just the transient journey of an accidental being, a mere collection of pleasures and pains. I am significant, truly significant, and I am significant right now, not because of some future event. There is infinite significance to every moment of my life, and this child is going to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Christmas, then, is the celebration of all that. The gifts, the glitter and the gatherings, it all carries that same message. Christmas is a time of giving, because that is what my whole life is about. and this child is the very personification of that meaning.
Merry Christmas. Indeed.