It's an exceptional landscape that Christmas heralds: The wintry pollen forms soft banks and piles high on the pine branches. Folks recall the sacrifices of our Lord. And pulsating, neon "Christmas sale" signs decorate the countryside. The scene is at once glorious and manipulative to its core.
Who would have thought that ostentatious display and a religious event would have gone so well together?
Certainly not the early proponents of Christianity who followed Christ's example in casting off the vain and materialistic concerns of society to live as humble servants to God. St. Mathew put it succinctly, ".Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:26-28)
St Mathew understood something essential about Christ's teachings. He knew that with God we have an absolute moral point of reference that is quite beyond vanity and boorishness. This foundation provides us with a meaningful perspective on our surroundings and thus opens us up to the truly beautiful possibilities of life. But, without God, our lives are formless and our sense of meaning is limited to the whimsical joys of beauty, materialism and egocentric pleasure.
Therefore, any genuine practice of religion must begin with the internal, not the external celebration of God.
A couple thousand years later, we continue to cherish the words of Christ, but our sense of religion has become entangled with idolatry and ritual at the expense of genuine spiritual enlightenment.
Part of the problem may lie in Paul's invocation that Christians need only believe in Christ (Romans 10:9). Apparently, this little invocation has been floating around the zeitgeist for a couple thousand years, leading Christians to proclaim their belief through rituals, but stopping them short of enjoying a personal experience of God. So focused have we become with the external practice of religion that we have lost touch with the true word of Christ.
We seem to forget that Christ purged every bit of materialism and personal vanity. He sought a moral frame of reference that was quite beyond the selfish and materialistic. He urged his followers to give away their possessions, live as servants and practice selfless acts of charity and love.
In short, Christ regarded religion as an internal, not external proposition. He taught that by removing oneself from man's vain and materialistic concerns one was able to purge his sense of "self" and thus achieve good, even in a tainted and decaying world.
This purging of "the self," was beautifully embodied by Christ's admonition on the cross, "Forgive them father for they know not what they do." Even as they tore at his flesh, Christ acted without malice.
I think our society no longer regards religion as an internal process. We have come to empathize with a joy far bigger than God - our own egocentric pleasures. The transient trappings of society are at the center of our universe. We behave as though our society is complete and, as a result, any hope of genuine spiritual enlightenment flakes and peels away.