Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Meaning of Celebrating Christmas

Braj Ranjan Mani

He was born in an obscure village about 2,000 years ago. The son of a simple rural woman, he grew up in the village. He lived there for about 30 years, working as a carpenter and performing other manual duties. He never had a formal education; he never attended school or college. At about the age of 30, he became a spiritual teacher. He left home, and he simply wandered and taught. He had no credentials that people generally associate with greatness. He did not earn wealth. He did not write any book. He did not go for a world tour or travel across the seas. He only travelled within a couple of hundred kilometers of his home village. He had no special status as a religious or political leader. Some people turned against his teachings—and his life. Even without really understanding who he was or what he was speaking about, they viciously targeted him. His friends abandoned him. One friend denied him, and one friend betrayed him to the political and religious authorities. Others put false charges against him, and he was convicted as a criminal. He was hung on a cross between two thieves. Finally, his lifeless body was placed in a grave donated by a friend. But his story did not end there. According to Isaiah,
He grew up before him [God] like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth…. He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53: 2-12, The Bible)

Centuries have passed since then, and we are on the threshold of the 21st century; but he, Jesus Christ, is still alive. He lives in the hearts of millions of men, women and children. Like a lamp that is never blown out by any storm or tornado. Why is it that over time, his importance has increased? Why, day by day, are more people taking shelter under the shadow of this Messiah?

Today, material changes—along with huge advances in science, technology and medicine—have changed the face of the world but they have not changed many old ways of the world. The world remains unkind, fragmented, and violent. Many things in our world and our relationships remain ugly and oppressive. Many old and new woes continue to fester. The vicious circle of injustice, exploitation and violence continues, albeit in new forms and new garbs. Today’s story is very complicated but our social and environmental poverty is clear—and remains the main source of discord, conflict and violence both within the countries and among the countries of the world. Human life is difficult: many people suffer due to internal, personal or family problems but many more are systematically oppressed. Millions of children are denied the basics like sanitation, health care and education. Today, above all, there is a growing feeling of helplessness before the pervasiveness of greed, cynicism and callousness. As injustices and violence persist, we desperately look out for some beacon of hope. We seek and invoke ideals and ethics to keep our sanity, to restore our faith in our common humanity—with a hope to end the hatred, strife and injustices.

Christmas brings us hope. A celebration of dreams, Christmas symbolises the triumph of hope over despair. Whatever the adversities, the life of Jesus reminds us that we have a soul and a spirit capable of endless love, sacrifice, and endurance. Jesus’ unbounded love for humanity inspires and unites all humanity. Especially in the moments of darkness and desolation, Jesus appears with the light of liberating love and wisdom. He shows the way, and brings us together for a just, happy and harmonious world. He promises us not just life but abundant life in which new forms of reconciliation, cooperation and creativity can blossom.

Celebrating Christmas is celebrating humanity by reaffirming our faith in noble values for which Jesus lived, died and resurrected. The life of Jesus suggests that the body of God includes everyone, especially the needy, the suffering, the outcast. The radical inclusion of the oppressed is the distinctive feature of the Christian embodiment. Jesus’ passionate concern with basics of life for all, and his focus on the healing of oppressed, vulnerable, suffering bodies, those who are in pain due to the indifference or greed of the more powerful, overturns hierarchies and destabilises status quo.

Jesus basically taught that we can lead a good life by loving each other, by nurturing relationships with fellow beings. Sensitising the self to the needs of others—comforting the people-in-distress, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outsider, setting free the imprisoned—will generate a climate of reciprocal care, share and service which creates the necessary condition for each person to flourish. Such reciprocal love ensures that there is no malevolence, hatred, and violence, paving the way for the flourishing of each and every individual. All ‘individuals’ will be wholesome, indivisible from others—because flourishing of one individual is dependent on the flourishing of others. Such reciprocal service and love can flourish only among equals, not in an unjust and stratified society. There is nothing grandiose and philosophic about it. Here, the meaning of life is manifested in offering a glass of water to the thirsty, rather than in seeing eternity in a grain of sand. Wholeness, equality and a unity based on it can provide the common ground of love in everyone, inviting everyone to the banquet of life. This is possible for everyone—anyone can lead such a life, a life of caring and loving relationships. To act and live in this way, however, will change the world in an amazing way, gracing everyone with abundant life.

Jesus’ sublime legacy is legacy to all humanity without any distinction of caste, race, class, gender, language, religion, political and other opinion. Celebrating his birth in our life requires pursuit of peace and harmony. Pursuing peace and harmony, however, is a risky business in a world divided by caste, class, gender, and other exploitative structures. For, it demands commitment for an exploitation-free world. It demands risky willingness to take on the immensely powerful forces of discrimination and domination. It demands the “cross” in some form or another.

Exploitation—covert or overt, social or economic, political or cultural, whatever its colour—is violence. Peace cannot prevail in a society founded on the axis of caste, race, class, and gender; such a society is essentially an unjust, unbalanced, sick society in which violence is inbuilt and pervasive. To rebel against such a society—and dismantle the matrix of domination that supports it—is the first and foremost task for any seeker of justice and reconciliation.

Vested interests and morality stand in opposition to each other—they are antithetical. And so are democracy and concentration of power and wealth in a few hands. Those who love peace and humanity have to necessarily oppose the entrenched interests. It is important to understand that the enemies of privilege are not the enemies of peace. Those who stand by peace stick out their necks for justice which brings in its wake genuine reconciliation. The rest are part of the problem—for, their ‘peace’, the peace of the rich and privileged, generates violence of one kind or another. Giving a loaf of bread to a crying child is not pursuing peace; pursuing peace is to change the system that produces millions of hungry children. Standing for peace means prioritising life of children of the poor over the power dinners of the rich. Unless we give justice to the oppressed, this world cannot be peaceful.

Differences and diversities are not to be confused with discriminations. Diversities are beautiful; let a hundred flowers bloom. Different people would always want different things from life, this is part of the human condition, and perfectly understandable; the trouble erupts when someone tramples on another’s feet for one’s success and excellence. Without a level-playing field, or equality of opportunity, the claims of talents and achievements are fraudulent. Such successes are built on the bricks of deception and exclusion. Exclusion breeds fertile ground for brutality by dehumanising both the victim and perpetrator.

It was for this precise reason that Jesus radicalised the divine love by stressing that God’s love is unbounded and oriented towards especially the oppressed. Jesus befriends the poor and powerless. Whoever the oppressed, Jesus reaches out to them. His love is destabilising. By overturning the conventional dualisms of righteous and sinner, rich and poor, he destabilises hierarchies and structures of exploitation. His life teaches us in crystal clear terms that peace cannot prevail without embracing the suffering humanity. Harmony cannot prevail without including the neglected oppressed. As long as the world remains divided between the winners and losers, the victims and victimisers, peace will continue to elude us.

Radical inclusiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Solidarity with the oppressed, solidarity of each with all is at the core of his morality. In its active form, it exhorts us to rise in rebellion against oppression; in its passive form, it coaxes us to suffer with those who suffer. In either form, it motivates us to side with the devalued, the discarded, the destroyed. It teaches us that a just, compassionate treatment of other people is the prime condition for our own thriving. Prayers, individual and collective, are meant to motivate us for action based on love and truth.

The truth shall make us free, as Jesus said, but before freeing us, the pursuit of truth, beauty and happiness puts us through many trials and travails. Are we ready for that? If we are, we are celebrating Christmas. Merry Chrismas!!


 …One great champion of the downtrodden, the holiest of the holy, the great sage and lover of Truth, Bali Raja [Jesus Christ], came into this world…and gave of true and holy knowledge and granted everyone an equal right to it…He undertook the task of releasing the poor, the oppressed from the bondage of slavery…and strove to establish the kingdom of God on earth. 
—Mahatma Phule in Gulamgiri (Slavery)