Monday, December 05, 2005
A REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS
Christmas is a time for get-togethers. Family reunions, the office party and of course, caroling. Sometimes such seasonal social occasions can bring together rather unexpected people.
Here we are then – gay and straight, religious and not-so-religious – Christmas does have this strange way of bringing together rather unexpected people.
It was like that, in fact, at the very first Christmas. Just think for a moment about those guests that were invited to witness it: a bunch of peasant shepherds on the one hand and a delegation of Persian scientists on the other. Two more disparate groups of people it’s hard to imagine. They can’t have had much in common, how would they have fueled the small talk with Joseph?
What on earth had brought them all there? How was it that their so very different paths, had somehow converged at that very moment of time almost 2005 years ago, in Bethlehem?
The answer is that, diverse as those shepherds and the wise men were as people, they were both came looking for something.
In the shepherds’ case, it was largely a political quest. Like quite a few people in the developing world today, the shepherds belonged to a defensive culture. They felt they were being bullied by the forces of a huge global empire. Western power had invaded their native country, led by Augustus Caesar. His empire had a great massive military and commanded significant economic muscle. Caesar was unmercilessly pushing up his tax bills upon the members of the working classes.
These shepherds hadn’t quite resorted to suicide bombings yet, but you can be sure some of the young men among them were not that far from doing so. They had a glimmer of hope, you see, which kept them militant. As in The Matrix movie, an oracle had years before issued a prophecy that one day a special person would arrive – ‘the son of God’ – who was destined to bring in a new era of both peace and justice. Not every person believed it of course – but these shepherds did. Which is why, when something decidedly odd happened that night, they’d decided to follow it up. Angels, they said it was. Bright shining messengers from another world, telling them the ancient prophecy was about to be fulfilled – the ‘God’ they were waiting for had been born!
What was it they saw, do you think? An hallucination after one too many in the local Bethlehem pub the evening before? Or were these angels actually extra-terrestrial aliens visiting in a flying saucer? There’s plenty of room for scepticism when people tell stories about supernatural encounters. But it is just possible, isn’t it, that as The Matrix rather suggests, there is a deeper level of existence underlying the fabric of this material world which we call ‘reality’, and that just occasionally that deeper reality breaks through to communicate with us?
That was the Shepherds’ interpretation of what had happened anyway. And somewhat similar things do still happen today, you know. Oh, I’m not saying you bump into people who’ve had visions of angels very often. But a surprising number of people do admit to some kind of supernatural experience in their lives.
I remember a man I met in hospital some years ago. He was only about 35, and he was dying of AIDS, his complications had caused him to have a massive heart attack. The doctors said that he had technically died during the attack. But guy claimed he’d never really lost consciousness. He told me about seeing a bright white light, and that he had heard voices. Again, plenty of room for skepticism – but he was never the same again after that near-death experience. He really felt he had met God.
You have every right to be cynical about stories like that, of course. Anecdotal evidence can’t prove a damn anything. I bet those shepherds encountered their own share of cynicism down in Bethlehem that winter night, as they shared their excitement about the angels with their neighbors. But – be sure of this – such things are often reported with surprising regularity.
In fact, maybe something a little bit like it has even happened to you? Have you never had a moment in your life when you felt the presence of God? Not as vivid as the shepherd’s encounter, no doubt, but a ‘sign’ nevertheless. A sign that, if you followed it up this Christmas, might lead you to Bethlehem.
Where, as I say, you would meet some unexpected people!
Persian scientists – what on earth were they actually doing there? After all, this was at the time Israel; both Mary and Joseph were said to have been orthodox Jews. These so-called wise-men were known to be outright pagans. Normally they wouldn’t have been seen dead in Judea. So what had brought these pagan Persians to Bethlehem that night?
Well, as I said earlier, they too must have been looking for something. This time, however, they claim that it wasn’t an angel that had put them on their path – but a star. Not a particularly bright or even unusual star, by all reported accounts. If it had been really conspicuous, surely everyone would have been talking about it, wouldn’t they? No, this seems to have been the kind of celestial event that only diligent scientific observation woould have detect. Detect it they had; and since astronomy and astrology were then pretty much the same thing, they thought it must mean something significant. So, like the shepherds, they too followed it. It took quite a while to do so, mind you – a journey of many hundreds of miles. But eventually their star brought them to Bethlehem too.
It was a crazy thing to do, of course: to set off halfway across the world on the strength of the ancient equivalent of one of Russell Grant’s horoscopes! But once again, similar things do happen today.
In fact, if I’m honest something rather similar happened to me. I was a atheist once, you know – a hard-headed rationalist if ever there was one. There was no use in showing me any visions of angels – I’d have just put it all down to indigestion and gone right back to watching Star Trek. But like those wise-men, I too was looking for something: answers to the big and ultimate questions. Questions like ‘why am I here?’
To my irritation, I discovered science didn’t really have a satisfactory answer for big questions. Don't get me wrong, it was quite good at describing how we had all gotten here; it conclusively proven the theories of a "Big Bangs", and "Evolution". But these theories were absolutely useless when it came to giving some explaination of why?
The best they theories could do was to attribute it all to random chance. That we are all some vast cosmic accident – the product of some chaotic motion of particles that neither knew ...nor cared about our existence. Yet the more I understood the exquisite symmetry and vast complexity of all those elementary particles that make up our universe, the larger the question mark seemed to become in my own mind. I simply couldn’t believe it was all some momentous accident; it didn’t feel like an accident, and more importantly... I didn’t feel like an accident. I had a deep sense of purpose and destiny in my heart – and science had no categories that could rationally interpret this sense of purpose, which did not end up simply explaining it all away as some kind of sick joke played on me by my own cerebral neurones.
No, there had to be something more. A deep intuition has convinced me of that. And the light of that intuition was my own ‘star’ – my inexplicable scientific anomaly. Like those Persian astronomers, I followed it. It has been a long journey – through many books and over several years – but eventually it led me, like those men in the desert, to God.
Maybe you have unanswered questions too? Maybe you, like me, find it hard to live a meaningful life without a satisfying explanation for the great mystery of our existence. Maybe, you like the shepherds and the wise-men – are also looking for something? What do you call it? Justice? Freedom? Hope? Peace? Truth? Love?
Take my advice: pursue that elusive something! Don’t let cynicism or mental laziness take you off its track. Pursue it, I say, and I suspect you will find this Christmas that your path is converging with that of so many others on a similar quest. Black and white, yellow and brown, male and female, young and old, gay and straight – they were all there you know. Some may have followed angels and others a star; some had came from religious families, while others were outright pagans; some came because they felt that God had intervened in their lives in some very magicial and supernatural way, and yet for others it was because they had big questions which they knew only he would be able to answer. But regardless of whatever background they each came from, by whatever route that had traveled...their paths all converge that night in Bethlehem.
There they all discovered that the special smoething that they were all seeking was in fact not a something at all – but a someone – God.
Have a wonderful and happy holidays, and remember...we are all children of God; and most importantly, that no man is worthy of standing in judgment of another.
DISCLAIMER:Although this article may be rooted in the Christian version of the birth of Jesus Christ...I believe strongly that most Christians have forgotten what it actually means to call yourself a Christian. More concerned about abominations, than they are about commandments. It is not God that hates....it is religion!