Christmas: Myth vs. Mystery
► Rev. Fr. Leopold Ratnasekera OMI
Taken on a global scale, Christmas has been transformed very much to our regret into a cultural and social festival caricatured by media and commercialism and as such every year with the onslaught of technology and incredible advertisement industry’s avalanche world-wide, it risks rapidly losing its inner Christian, spiritual and religious depth-meaning. While a legitimate external manifestation of this Christian celebration is permissible, it should not be allowed to overshadow the spiritual experiences that are most essential to this centuries-old traditional Christian celebration.
Christians all over the world are proud that Christmas marks the end of a passing year and ushers in as well a brand new year – an year of newer and fresher opportunities to live their faith intensely and thus become a source of blessing to the world. They are happy to inherit the beatitude of the Mount in which the feet of those who come over the mountains announcing peace are really blessed and that peace-makers would be called the children of God.
It was to enhance this hope that Blessed Pope Paul VI inspired by the encyclical “Peace on earth” of Pope St. John XXIII and with reference to his own encyclical “Progress of Peoples”, established in 1967 the Catholic “World Day of Peace” dedicated to universal peace, to be held each year on January 1st, the feast of Mary, the Mother of God. January 2018 will mark its 40th anniversary.
Commercialism robs Christmas of its meaning, radically turning it into a secular festival, The Christmas Season begins in certain countries as early as September with streets being lit with neon-lights, windows in dazzling décor and with shops and super-markets abounding in goods of all kinds: clothes, utensils, furniture and foods. The secular world believes that the more these material aspects are spectacular, the happier Christmas season would turn out to be.
It is the time for sales and mega-profits. It is reported that the hawkers of Pettah have a field-day during the time of Christmas and they rake in profits by the thousands. Secularising Christmas into trade and merry-making creates of it an idol thus creating a new idolatry and a simony which is turning a sacred thing into something worldly.
This is a manifestation of the Christmas Myth. It was the same milieu that filled Bethlehem, the blessed night the world’s redeemer was born in that royal city of David. It does not really matter the particular day or the particular place where Jesus Christ was born.
We might not be able to fix it historically. What we celebrate is the memory of this unique one-time event which Christians identify as a truth of Faith, the Incarnation of the Word, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity born as a human being in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth who happens to be the “Eternal Galilean”. His memory has penetrated the last 20 centuries across continents, cultures and civilisations.
A Pentecost of languages across the world call on Him for divine intervention: forgiveness of sin and for the peace that He alone can give and the world cannot. He is hailed as the Light of Nations as Vatican II proclaims and the first evangeliser that brought to us the Good News of God’s unconditional love for mankind which had strayed from the dawn of creation.
Jesus through His Church, is still feeding the hungry, healing the sick and driving away the demons that put to rack and ruin the lives of modern man. There has never been a period in history that saw principalities and powers of darkness wreaking disasters and destruction over mankind, as the present age we live in. The incredible advances in science and technology are finding themselves poorer in stemming this tide of tragedies and catastrophe. The ever noble sciences of humanities have buckled down in the face of this tsunami of modernity that promises only a life of comfort, pleasure and enjoyment of a temporal nature to modern man. Through this surreptitious enemy of man’s mind and spirit, he has succumbed to ever greater and lamentable ignorance of deeper values that bring meaning to life.
Christmas immerses us in the world of the reality of the Incarnation of the Word of God, furlongs away from a mythical and trivialized perception that will alienate this mystery from our celebrations. It is said by scholars that the “sacred” is so mysterious, though real, that we need myths (stories), rituals and rites in our efforts to express it. So, the latter are only a poor means to capture the reality and the depth of the mystery involved. Religion needs mystery and corresponding stories to express itself. After all, didn’t Jesus Himself use simple stories called Parables to reveal the immensely profound inner spiritual meaning of the Kingdom of God that He came to reveal and sacrifice Himself for! Look at the most touching stories of the Prodigal Son which describes the conversion of a sinner but is seen as a penitent return to his father’s home that makes the father exult in joy! Read the story of the Good Samaritan who enacts the drama of Christian charity towards a helpless victim no matter what religion or race or culture the victim happens to belong. What about the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep and when found, hoists him on His shoulders and dances for joy. So we have in God, a feasting Father and a dancing Shepherd!
In the same vein we have the Christmas stories of the two Gospel-writers, Matthew and Luke who look at the event of the Birth of Jesus Christ from different angles and strive to present it to the two different kinds of communities they encountered when they began evangelising the Jews and the Greeks. Matthew is more doctrinal placing the Christmas story in the context of the fulfillment of the great Messianic prophecies and hopes that were uttered hundreds of years ago by their religious teachers and sages, the prophets. Luke on the other hand is down to earth perceiving the Birth of Christ as a poor One amidst the poor. His approach is more human and concrete.
Look at the “Magnificat” that extols the poor and praises God who does mighty things for His chosen ones. It is a hymn that sings about human liberation and justice for the lowly who are exalted, with those in power thrown down from their worldly thrones. The socially marginalised shepherds are great actors in the drama of Bethlehem. To them is announced by the angelic host the Birth of the Messiah of the poor, laid in a manger surrounded by cattle. But, He is Christ the Lord! They go into ecstasy seeing the Babe wrapped up in swaddling clothes. Jesus Himself, though a carpenter, chooses the image of the shepherd to identify Himself! Shepherds work hard, lead their sheep in the hot sun covering distances looking for rich pasture to feed their flock. They break rest and watch their flocks by night, alert to any danger that might befall them.
Jesus considers His followers as sheep and friends who have to be loved by those to whom they are entrusted, like Peter. With them He had shared the secrets of the Kingdom of God which he came to announce and inaugurate. Though born in a cattle-shed and refused all shelter, security and comfort, He reigns from His Cross that won Him a Risen and glorious presence. The whole cosmos will genuflect before this Risen One and proclaim Him Lord, says St. Paul, a great protagonist who counted himself accursed if he did not proclaim this crucified and risen Christ!
This is the mystery that began with history’s first Christmas night in Bethlehem: witnessed by Mary Immaculate, Joseph the just man, the shepherds and of course the three kings who came with gifts guided by the mysterious star in the East. These gifts too symbolised the mystery shrouding this wonder-child: He will be a suffering Messiah but a royal One. Much of what happened in His life was a mystery even to His mother Mary and we are told that she pondered over them in her heart prayerfully: the birth in the manger, the exile into Egypt, Simeon’s startling prophecy, his being lost at the temple and the tragic events on Calvary.
Christmas therefore challenges us not to turn it into a myth, giving into exaggerated exterior glitter and reveling, turning it into a pagan festival. We are dealing with the august mystery of Christmas which is the Incarnation of the Son of God. Instead this celebration must be done devoutly and soberly experiencing the depths of the mystery that took place in human history two thousand years ago. The Babe of Bethlehem is God’s love written in human language. It is the bounden duty of all Christians, to ward off the paganising trends of this celebration, which make of it an idol in the claws of a secular culture. – Messenger