24 December 2013

Reflections on Christmas (as per Isaiah, Ch 58)

I am writing this on the 24th of December.  You will be reading this, hopefully, tomorrow, Christmas Day.  So Merry Christmas to all of you, especially those of the Christian faith and all those who are inspired by the life and words of the exceptional earth-resident, Jesus of Nazareth. The wishes come from an atheist, just so you know.

There’s a passage in the bible that I return to frequently. It prompts deep self-reflection and also gives perspective to a lot of things in our society.  Isaiah (Chapter 58) always sobers me up during Christmas and here I am thinking about Christmas as ‘event’, as commercial moment, advertising hook and business convenience and not what it was supposed to mean; the celebration of the saviour, what he advocated, lived and died for, the spirit of giving and forgiving etc.

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
    releasing those bound unjustly,
    untying the thongs of the yoke;
    Setting free the oppressed,
    breaking off every yoke?

7  Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,
    bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
   Clothing the naked when you see them,
    and not turning your back on your own flesh?
The relevant passages focus on the notion of ‘fasting’ and like most parts of the Bible, are heavy on metaphor (and therefore open to multiple interpretation; inevitably and unfortunately). I like to think that it is about what could be called ‘the true work of the Lord’, that which could be described as performing the will of the Father in heaven. 

Too often the Bible is read in a strictly literary manner and that always empowers zealotry and not the kind of humility that made Jesus Christ utter the words ‘Father why have you forsaken me?’  Believing fervently that they are indeed doing the work of the Lord, people slip to the by-any-means-necessary mode of operation.  From there it is a short distance to engendering strife and contention, embracing malicious talk and finger-pointing and striking with the fist of wickedness.  That’s not the ‘fast’ that Jesus advocated, Isaiah points out.

What is advocated is a different frame of being, a ‘fasting’ that is of a liberating, giving, sharing kind, one that is about loosening the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, setting the oppressed free, sharing food with the hungry, providing the hapless wanderer with shelter, clothing the unclothed.  Such an approach will obtain for one the Lord’s guidance, we are told and those who live in this manner would be called ‘Repairers of Broken Walls’ and ‘Restorers of Streets with Dwellings’; in short, they would be healers, architects of those nurturing edifices called community and solidarity. 

But the Christmases of our experience is one of decoration and pomp, glitter and festivity, conspicuous consumption and vulgar consumerism, all accompanied by a manifest disavowal and frequent foot-noting of the fast and Sabbath as described by the prophets. 

And this is not just on the 25th day of December, but throughout the year.  Even the ‘giving’ is considered in terms smacking of ‘return on investment’, i.e. with an eye on the ‘receiving’ at some later date. This is even true in the ‘work’ of those who have taken on the task of spreading the word of God. 

I am not against festivity, don’t get me wrong.  My concern is that in the rush to ‘celebrate’ there is a clear flushing down the tube of the most salient words of the man from Galilee and the essence of what his life on earth was all about. 

It is this ‘absence’ that has made Christmas a farce and a moment that draws ridicule and even anger from even the most sensitive and tender-hearted among us;  like Langston Hughes, whose poem ‘Merry Christmas’, published in ‘New Masses’ in December 1930, found its way to my email inbox a few minutes ago.

Merry Christmas

By Langston Hughes

Merry Christmas, China

From the gun-boats in the river,

Ten-inch shells for Christmas gifts,

And peace on earth forever.

Merry Christmas, India,

To Gandhi in his cell,

From righteous Christian England,

Ring out, bright Christmas bell!

Ring Merry Christmas, Africa,

From Cairo to the Cape!

Ring Hallehuiah! Praise the Lord!

(For murder and rape.)

Ring Merry Christmas, Haiti!

(And drown the voodoo drums –

We'll rob you to the Christian hymns

Until the next Christ comes.)

Ring Merry Christmas, Cuba!

(While Yankee domination

Keeps a nice fat president

In a little half-starved nation.)

And to you down-and-outers,

("Due to economic laws")

Oh, eat, drink, and be merry

With a bread-line Santa Claus –

While all the world hails Christmas,

While all the church bells sway!

While, better still, the Christian guns

Proclaim this joyous day!

While holy steel that makes us strong

Spits forth a mighty Yuletide song:

SHOOT Merry Christmas everywhere!

Let Merry Christmas GAS the air!

The point is clear.  Christmas is not Christmas and perhaps never was. And yet it need not be this way.  There can be a move towards considering what chains and yokes exist around us and ask ourselves what we do about these.  This ‘usual’ Christmas does not forbid the faithful (and even the ‘faithless’) from sharing, from sheltering and clothing, literally and metaphorically.  Gifting, for example, is a good thing. Wholesome.  It is a bringing-together exercise.  But there are gifts and gifts, those which cost the earth (literally) and those which constitute a blessing to giver, receiver and the entire earth. And there are gifts to the most needy and gifts to those not in want. 

Christmas, then, is a moment where ‘choice’ is exercised. Decisions are made. At every point, this question is being asked of the Christian, baptized or otherwise: ‘are you really doing the work of the Lord, are you really fasting in the way that “fast” has been described in the Bible’.  The way this question is being answered, the answers and their collective thrust is what makes Christmas.  It is what can break Christmas too.

Malinda Seneviratne is a journalist, a Buddhist, and can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com.