On the day after Thanksgiving, as is my custom, I took out my collection of Christmas music and inaugurated the season with The Drifters’ gloriously funky version of "White Christmas." It’s a quintessentially American moment: honoring a tradition born in the Middle East and appropriated by Europeans with a song written by a Jew and sung by a black R&B group.
I have loved Christmas ever since I was a kid in Brooklyn. I loved "Jingle Bells," and Rudolph, and the brightly lit trees in the homes of our Christian friends and the presents with my name on them under their trees—even after I’d solved the riddle of how Santa could enter locked apartments that didn’t have fireplaces. I continued to love Christmas even in college, when I was an atheistic, radical activist who believed that religion was the opium of the people. I went to Christmas Eve services with friends, just to see what churches were like, and I would come away humming the songs and feeling moved by the welcoming goodwill of the congregants.
When I awakened to the value of the spiritual life, the holiday took on deeper, more holy significance. I came to see it both as a time of deepening and as a birthday party for a great spiritual master. I learned to celebrate it without getting annoyed by 2,000 years of institutional baggage and dubious dogma.
There are, of course, myriad ways to interpret the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is not my job to determine which are best, or to pass judgment on their historical veracity. I leave factual matters to scholars and theologians, and I leave it to individuals to find their way into the holiday in a way that brings peace to their minds and joy to their hearts. One thing’s for sure: if you’re in America in the month of December, you can't ignore the Christmas story; so why not use it for learning and growth, regardless of your religious orientation?
For me, Jesus is one of those shining lights who have graced the planet with wisdom of the highest order and have walked their talk with magnificent dignity. I revere him as I revere Buddha, Muhammad, Moses and the other Hebrew prophets, the yogic seers of India, the Taoist sages, the Sufi masters and all the other holy men and women who have helped human beings forge a connection to their divine source. If there were birthday parties for the others, I would celebrate them too.
As I see it, if you set aside the commercial humbug and religious teachings that are more superstitious than spiritual, you come upon a wise and courageous rabbi who sought to correct what he regarded as distortions and corruptions in his Judaic heritage. His was a simple and practical message. All those commandments? That complex legalism? It boils down to this: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. As a formula for inner and outer transformation, it’s as concise as a sutra from the Upanishads and as pure as a Zen brushstroke.
Need more specific instruction? Check out these three New Testament passages:
- "But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). Note: he said first, as in make the spiritual aspect of life your top priority.
- "The kingdom of God does not come by observation: Neither will they say, behold, it is here! or behold, it is there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20 – 21). Location, location, location. The divine is everywhere, but it's most readily found within you, in what the East calls “the lotus of the heart."
- "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who like to pray standing in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have already received their reward. But as for you, when you pray, enter into your inner chamber and lock your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret shall reward you openly" (Matthew 6:5 – 6.8). I take "pray" to be a generic term for spiritual disciplines that include what we normally think of as prayer, but also meditation, contemplation, devotion, chanting and other practices. And I take "Father" to mean whatever you conceive of as the ineffable Source of all energy, intelligence and love.
There you have the essence of what Jesus urged everyone to do: ignite the spark of divinity that dwells in the “kingdom” within, and walk the earth with selfless love. Not even Scrooge would object to that message, and the saints and sages of every religion would surely nod their assent. Needless to say, the world would be a better place if we all paid attention to it year-round, regardless of how or where we worship, or our professed beliefs, or the tribe to which we belong. After all, why should only Christians benefit from the enlightened one they call the Christ?