One day, a small, quiet town finds its peace disturbed by a horde of bikers. Each afternoon the bikers roar into town and wreak havoc in the bars and restaurants. At an emergency meeting, various solutions are offered. The macho guys get out their guns. The lawyers want to pass a new ordinance. The social workers counsel compassion and patience. Then the clergy propose their plan: make the bikers members of their congregations.
"What good would that do?" skeptics ask.
The answer: "Then they’ll only come on the holidays."
Well, it’s holiday time, and the Judeo-Christian world once again remembers its religious roots. The air seems as sweet as it is chilly, and we glimpse what the world might be like if our hearts were this open all year round. It’s an atmosphere conducive to spiritual growth, for those whose intentions run deeper than shopping and egg nog.
I think of religion as having five principle functions, all beginning with the prefix trans, which can mean across, through or beyond. The five functions are:
Transmission: to convey from one generation to another customs, rituals, stories and historical references.
Translation: to help people interpret life events, acquire a sense of meaning and define their relationship to the universe.
Transaction: to provide community, fellowship and guidelines for ethical human interaction.
Transformation: to serve as a catalyst for individual growth and the realization of human potential.
Transcendence: to satisfy the yearning to expand our sense of self and unite with the divine ground of being.
Organized religions tend to excel in the first three functions but come up short with the last two. In fact, the shortage of opportunities for genuine transformation and transcendence might be the main reason that millions of people call themselves "spiritual but not religious" and opt out of religious institutions (except, of course, on the holidays). It is up to each individual to restore those vital ingredients to our spiritual lives. In so doing, we align ourselves with the root of the word religion: to bind back, meaning to reconnect with the Source of all that is.
One way to use the holidays for transformation and transcendence is to make your time off from work spiritually productive. Why not set aside extra minutes, hours or even days for prayer, meditation or contemplation? Instead of watching "It’s a Wonderful Life" one more time, why not read one of those spiritual books you’ve been meaning to get to? How about going on retreat, even if all you can manage is a morning of silence in your own home?
The holiday tradition of charity and gift-giving also provides opportunities for personal change and boundary breaking. Instead of just writing a check, some people serve meals at a homeless shelter or bring cheer to hospital patients—the kind of service activities that transform the giver more than the receiver. Others, remembering that charity begins at home, use the occasion to forgive family members who have hurt them or to reconcile with loved ones with whom they’ve had conflict. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not necessarily easy tasks, but they can heal the wounds that constrain spiritual growth, and they can open our hearts and crack the shells of our egos.
Then there are the sacred stories from which the holidays spring. Instead of just recounting these rich tales as history or reciting them as part of tribal lore, why not engage them at a deeper level? It has been argued that certain stories are told century after century because they resonate with archetypal elements in the human psyche. A powerful exercise, therefore, is to disregard whether they’re true or not and approach them metaphorically. Contemplate what the characters and events symbolize to you personally and what they say about your path of spiritual unfoldment.
As you reflect on the Christmas story, for instance, you might want to ponder what it would take to give birth to your own divinity. What elements of your psyche are saying, "There is no room at the inn"? Are your emotional innkeepers hostile to the holy man or woman you really are? Are they resisting its power and majesty? What does the Divine Mother within you have to do to bring your light into the world?
The Chanukah story also lends itself to deep contemplation. As you may recall, the holiday commemorates a Hebrew uprising against the Syrian occupiers of the holy land. Jews were prohibited from practicing their religion and the temple in Jerusalem was filled with idols that Jews considered desecrations. After the successful revolt, led by Judas Maccabee, the temple was rededicated. Legend has it that the supply of oil was sufficient to light the eternal flame for only one day, but a miracle kept it burning for eight.
What internal forces are keeping you from fulfilling your personal covenant with the Divine? What "idols" fix your attention on the outer, material sphere of life at the expense of your soul? What must your inner Maccabee do to overcome that which oppresses your spirit? What would it mean to rededicate your temple? What "miracle" must you perform to keep your holy flame lit?
It is probably no coincidence that the symbol of light is so central to the holy days that coincide with the winter solstice. Whatever answers your contemplation yields, whatever lessons you draw from your inner work, may your own light grow ever brighter with the lengthening of days.