Approximately 2017 years ago an infant was born to an unwed, teen-aged mother, delivered into poverty in a troubled corner of the world. About 33 years later he died, put to death by the clergy and politicians of his day.
Some said the infant was holy, others said the man became holy through prayer and selflessness, through the overcoming of temptation, through exquisite empathy and concern for his fellow human beings.
Some have said he performed miracles and feats of magic. Others have said that the real magic, the greatest and truest miracle, was the inexplicable way he touched and elevated the souls of all with whom he came in contact—if their eyes and ears and hearts were open. Even the mere telling of his story, long after his death, has had this effect.
Although that story is widely known, it is almost certain that the man at the heart of it has been grossly misunderstood by billions over the centuries who have quoted his name. That name was Yeshu, or Yeshua–known to most today as Jesus.
People have killed in his name. People have fought wars in his name. People have bought and sold uncounted trillions of dollars worth of merchandise in his name. People have bought and sold slaves, and defended the practice, in his name. People have burned crosses in his name. People have been burned at the stake in his name. Genocide has been conducted in his name. People have destroyed Creation in his name. And still do.
People have also taken vows of poverty in his name. People have devoted their lives to the sick and the weak and the poor in his name. People have fought against slavery and exploitation and every form of injustice in his name. People have become brave and merciful and generous, to the point of giving their own lives, in his name. People have found hope and meaning, beauty, love, and salvation, in his name; have fought for the beauty of Creation in his name. And they still do.
What seems clear from these stupendous contradictions is that the mere saying and claiming of the name leads to no preordained attitudes or acts of goodness or compassion. Rather it is those open eyes, ears, and hearts that are key in trying to truly understand the story and its meaning. It is the story of a person whose very essence came to be understood as goodness, as truth, as courage and mercy and compassion—to the extent that those who saw him and came to know him had the feeling that they were witnessing the very nature of God Himself. They were seeing—and believing—that there was a goodness at the heart of the universe that could ultimately triumph over evil, over suffering, even over death.
The need for those open eyes and hearts was often referenced in the Teacher’s own stories. Stories like the Good Samaritan, the Adulteress, the Mote in the Eye, each illustrated that every listener must first and always look inward and take into account his own mind and heart, her own weaknesses and flaws. For only in doing so can we determine whether our actions, words and lives are truly reflective of the wonderful name so often invoked—or, as is all too often the case, simply demonstrating our own selfishness and pettiness, our all-too-comfortable customs, fears, and prejudices. This is and always has been the case. And it is a difficult thing—to attain this honest, inward view. But that is the space this Teacher, this Holy One whose birth we celebrate, has always claimed and inhabited—the space of the innermost heart and soul, the “Kingdom of Heaven within.”
And so at this time, as we retell the old story, and try to imagine a world and a time so different from our own, it is a good moment, as Christmas has always been, to reflect upon our inner worlds, and the great world we share—now bound together more tightly and seamlessly than ever. It is a world—as the Teacher taught—in which there is no “them.” There is only “us.” This winter—as in every winter for 2017 years—it is good to examine the “kingdom within” in each of us, and the greater life we all share, to see if we are truly honoring the old story, and the mysterious and glorious person at the heart of it.
Warmest Christmas wishes to all.
Bless us every one.