There’s so much to love about Christmas. And about each family’s traditions.
Ours involved my father down in the cellar each Christmas Eve trying to get the strings of lights to work as we decorated the tree upstairs; and my mother writing rhymes to go with each gift she and Dad wrapped after the tree was done (the best one ever!), after my brother and I had gone to sleep — tiny literary works as filled with love and amusement as they were devoid of art. (Not that I’m anyone to judge a poetry contest.)
None of us believed in a literal Santa Claus, just as none of us believed in a literal God . . . but we sure believed in the spirit of Christmas, and in the spirit of that very special sermon, and — switching temples for a second — in the spirit of tikkun olam.
So the safest thing is probably to leave it at that, giving the last word, as I usually do, to Tiny Tim.
For those not easily offended, though . . .
. . . I thought I would share the Christmas essay that my classmate Stephen Mo Hannan sent out this week.
(Mo was nominated for a Tony for his role in creating CATS . . . played opposite Kevin Kline in THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE . . . and starred as Captain Hook opposite Cathy Rigby. He co-authored and starred as Al Jolson in off-Broadway’s JOLSON & COMPANY, a performance that blew me away.)
Some of what follows flies over my head, but the fourth graph deserves a highlight (mine, not Mo’s).
“Easier to worship than to emulate,” indeed.
“Who’s That Baby?”
December is off and running, darkness extending while Nativity scenes proliferate. Despite being raised Jewish (Orthodox, even), I’ll soon join an interfaith crowd of medieval music lovers for a concert of Christmas hymns, praising Mary the Virgin and at her breast the Holy Child who came to save the world. In a Park Avenue church, no less.
I will bring my customary questions: Why does the world need to be saved, and Who’s that kid, really? COVID currently demonstrates something the world needs to be saved from, but not why, nor why that celebrated baby is part of the saving. Since childhood, I’ve viewed the recurrent annual ritual with an outsider’s curiosity, ultimately reducible to What’s all this really about? Above all, I remain mystified by how Bible stories inspired so many centuries of unquestionably great art and music in Christian Europe despite kinship with so troubling and, to me, bizarre a belief system.
There’s some truth in it somewhere, I have to assume, right? Some powerful grasp of human psychology at the heart of a doctrine of sin and salvation which also includes a radiant mother and a clueless baby smelling wet straw and animal dung in a hovel. A grasp two thousand years old, somehow encompassing love and its fragile reach in this world.
Of course I realize that the baby doesn’t say a word about either sin or salvation, but blink and he turns into a grown man preaching a radical slant on traditional Judaism in an Eastern Mediterranean province of the Roman Empire. We are expected to assume he is the same as the aforementioned baby in Bethlehem because they have the same name. But we’re free to imagine whatever we like about his interim adolescence, except that he ever got an erection or did any- thing to relieve it.
Thus he retains the purity of the newborn, but as an adult rabbi he begins to advocate a different, more ample take on what purity might be. Purity might be a cultivated psychological state akin to mental clarity, to serenity, a self-conception freed from anxiety or resentment. He refers to it as the Kingdom of Heaven, or of his Father, but to think of it as a place with a spatial dimension misses the actuality. No compass can find it, above or below. He defines it by its key attribute, the impulse to love: to recognize oneself in others. He repeatedly points out how much more whole it makes you feel. How kindness improves living.
He persists in advocating for this Kingdom, via an inner experience that anyone can access, a claim he makes despite much evidence to the contrary. Pharisees of his time (and our own) could cite the widespread human failure to access this so-called Kingdom, proving that only strict obedience to fixed rules will curb our tendency to malevolence. Can this failure have some bearing on the need to be saved? If we all remained as innocent as baby Jesus—or any baby, come to think of it—a savior wouldn’t be necessary. There would be no contempt, no deception, no malice to relieve. But here they are, worldwide, and the more they prevail, the more an interior nagging tells us that relief is necessary. Grownup Jesus points the way.
Turns out it’s ourselves we need to be saved from, our fixation on a fallen world marred by human weakness (usually that of others). Jesus invites us to see the world differently, using the faculty of imagination. To examine the possibility that our life could have gone another way, or maybe still could. To allow that we could have done something, if not everything, better. Glimpses of a best self we could have tried more persistently to express. As imagined by Grownup Jesus the Zen master.
To admit error is one thing, but the choices awaiting us when guilt interferes are two. We can heed either the Ego or Whatever reaches beyond it. Guilt being a sorrow that gnaws at our attention, we can on one hand choose to reflect on our mistakes, seeking to understand and transcend them, and eventually put into practice the attitudes and behaviors Grownup Jesus promotes. Ego, on the other hand, prefers the transactional option of expiation. Reflection requires Ego itself to step aside and be seen for what it is: a skillful navigator, but also the mastermind of contempt, deception and malice. Unfortunately, expiation, by whatever deal Ego contrives, seldom lasts beyond the inevitable return of whatever fault it was supposed to expiate. Reflection, though more effective, takes more time, in fact is a lifetime effort.
Ironically, without death there’s no need for reflection and Ego could get away with murder. Never wasting time on regret, it would replace benevolence with unchecked self-gratification. The worst features we see in babies, without the redeeming helpless innocence. It’s the apprehension of death, a unique gift of our species, that checks Ego’s onslaught. This supreme mental facilitator, seemingly in charge of all our choices and explanations, at a significant point in its existence confronts its inevitable end. The helplessness, no longer innocent, of utter disappearance. The fragility of the entire enterprise.
The electrifying recognition of mortality shocks us beyond the loss of innocence. A warning siren of accident, a guarantee of extinction, the tyranny of fear, in legendary terms the expulsion from the Garden (with a Father more vengeful than the radical rabbi imagined). Worse, shared throughout a population, the dread of death fosters attitudes and behaviors at extreme odds with the instructions of Grownup Jesus. A frightening, intimidating world that, like the person who imagines it, needs to be saved. And it’s Death’s fault!
The irony of Christianity is how it morphed from its origins by exalting the guide above the guidance. In circles where the modification of thought and conduct at the heart of his doctrine seems too strenuous to go viral, Jesus gets transformed into the barely human symbol of love and goodness, our designated driver to the afterlife, easier to worship than to emulate. His ego, if he had one, would be having the last laugh at all the lip service. All the daily dying souls who confront death and dodge punishment merely by affirming belief, praying double hard to the instructor they should have just listened to when they were alive.
But fear not, Christmas is coming and that baby is back. Despite knowing he ended up nailed to a cross, we rejoice in his birthday. This baby is said to be special because he has God for a father, but don’t they all, if you construe God as being whatever it is that keeps perpetuating life in forms both male and female. Furthermore, this baby is said to possess magical godlike powers, chief among them the ability to cleanse the sins of persons existing many centuries after the baby has gone. There is some evidence for this, which, like all magic, is part trick, part genuine astonishment.
The trick part is to reinforce the concept of sin as a coordinate of guilt. If enough people make a prison of their mistakes, they can be collectively convinced that a prison of still greater torment awaits after death, unless they make the “right” choices. Unfortunately, the fear this concept generates tends to favor the wrong choices, which in turn generate more threats of torment and so on. Round and round the cycle goes, but once a year when the world is darkest we stop and look toward light returning. In this world of straw and dung where humans misbehave individually and collectively with equal vehemence, behold! One look at this baby revives the dormant innocence we thought was lost. We come into this world just the way that baby does, blameless. We contain the same miracle. Sin is a myth. Heaven is real. That’s the astonishment.
Baby Jesus arrives to save the world by freeing us from the fear of death. Not by swapping cultish adherence in exchange for a proposed post-terrestrial immortality, but by looking at the world fearlessly, lovingly, with sustained wonder and welcome. Without words the baby invites us into a mode of perception that decades later Grownup Jesus among many others will elucidate for the ages. And that baby is perpetual.
© Stephen Mo Hanan
Quote of the Day
Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.~Will Rogers
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