I love December. Snow piled high on pine branches, folks recalling the sacrifices of our Lord, neon "Christmas sale" signs decorating the countryside. The scene is both glorious and manipulative to its core.
Ah, Merry Christmas.
Seems an appropriate time to remind ourselves that any genuine practice of religion begins with the internal, not the external celebration of God (and money). St. Matthew put it nicely: ".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)
Somehow these words get lost in the holiday din of stressed-out parents screaming at pimply-faced toy store employees without any Power Rangers left in stock. Modern Christmas is about ceremony. It is about culture. And it perfectly embodies the ritualistic nature of modern Christianity, which focuses on idolatry and dogma at the expense of spiritual enlightenment.
Part of the problem stretches back to Paul's invocation that Christians need only believe in Christ (Romans 10:9). This little invocation has been floating around the zeitgeist for a couple thousand years, leading Christians to proclaim their belief through rituals but stopping short of enjoying a personal (or mystical) experience of God. Modern Christianity has become so focused on the external practice of religion - on simply proclaiming one's belief through ritualistic worship - 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 concerns of society. He urged his followers to give away their possessions, live as servants and practice selfless acts of charity and love. He taught that one must first purge his vain and materialistic concerns, before one is able to achieve good. This purging of "the self," was beautifully embodied by Christ's admonition on the cross, "Forgive them father, they know not what they do." Even as they tore at his flesh, Christ acted without malice. His example teaches us that genuine religion means purging the ego and removing oneself from boorishness.
It is clear that we've lost touch with a lot of what Christ's words and actions were meant to teach us. We call ourselves Christians because our parents call themselves Christians, but somewhere along the line, we lost the ability to believe in God. Therefore, we have no capacity to achieve genuine spiritual enlightenment. We love Christ, but we do not love our fellows as Christ did. Our sense of vanity and materialism get in the way, and prevents us from achieving the truly beautiful possibilities of life.
So, as we scramble to buy our Christmas gifts, let's take a moment and reflect on this absolute reference point that God provides us. Let us imagine the cry of the newborn baby Jesus and the mystery and hope that his life provides. Let us take a moment and not only recall the sins of our recent past, but the eternal kingdom that awaits us. In quiet moments, removed from the cultural props that proclaim this holiday season, let us remember that we must let go of vanity and materialism, before we can experience the truly beautiful possibilities of life.