Red Barns & White Winter... Amish Farm, Maine
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Someone in the gathering asked the Sage about the date of Jesus' birth -
Scholars debate when Jesus was born; possibly it wasn't December 25 or in the winter at all.
And what's your question?
When do you think Christmas should be celebrated?
Now. It's not a day on a calendar. Christ is always being born, yet Christ was never born. How can what is be born or die? What the word "Christ" indicates has no birthday and no funeral day.
Then, do you think it's okay to celebrate Christmas Day?
Why not? But, better, let your life be the celebration. Otherwise, you're just pretending. Don't just celebrate Christmas, be it. Don't just adore Christ, be Christ.
Historical reductionism has stripped the Christmas story of much of its meaning. When seen as story, it is freed of history. Seeing it as history means keeping it in time. Free of time, the questions of what did or did not happen long ago can drop. Can we take Christmas off the calendar and place it in our hearts?
*Brian K. Wilcox. "Meetings with an Anonymous Sage."
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A life-changing revelation occurred when seeing the facts of my native religion and its Scripture often were not historical but metaphorical - metaphor is suggestive, inviting us to timeless wisdom rather than telling us what to think or do. The Christian Bible, as a consequence, was freed from the limits of dogma and history, and its stories found new life and spaciousness to unveil new and varied meanings. In my native faith, everything became prescriptive. Now, I could appreciate how metaphor is often more important than what someone says happened. In our faiths, often we have no idea what did or did not happen, but we have the stories. We have stories told about Christmas, but what happened? Fact is sometimes fact. History may be misrepresented. Metaphor is always true. Rather than prescriptive, story is invitational.
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A Buddhist story from the Lotus Sutra -
After many weeks of climbing mountains and wading across streams, the band of travelers is weary. Some want to turn back homeward. The guide, a magician and holy man, says, "Dear friends, try and go a little farther. A city lies before us. We will come upon it in four or five hours. We will be able to rest, enjoy a meal, and bathe there." When the group hears this, it is encouraged and walks on with anticipation.
Finally, the guide uses miraculous powers to conjure up a magic city. When the travelers see this city, they find water to wash. Afterward, they find food to eat, water to drink, and places to sleep. When the group wakes up refreshed the next day, the city has disappeared. The city had been an illusion, but it had served its purpose.
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In Finding our True Home, Thich Nhat Hanh says the idea of a magical place free of suffering can motivate us. Yet, the words about such places are not to be clung to. Thay sees the holy man providing a temporary illusion to prepare the people to discover the magical place within themselves. Buddhists speak of such means of teaching or practice as "skillful means."
Hahn comments -
The notion of a Pure Land where no one suffers, the notion of the Kingdom of God where everyone is holy, is a skillful means that wakes us up to our own capacity to be free from suffering, to live a holy life. And yet we are aware that the development of our holiness and of our freedom from suffering is wholly dependent on our practice, on our ability to transform our pain, our anxiety and our suffering into understanding, peace and happiness.
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On this Christmas Day, I no longer relate to Christmas in the literalistic manner of my upbringing. I have not for many years, even as I no longer get up on Christmas Day to find out what Santa left for me. Was Mary a virgin? It was what it was... I do not know. To me, the story says we all need to be virgins spiritually: pure of heart. Whether Christian or not, there is a "Christ" we - you and I - are to give birth to where we are. Look around... there you see your Bethlehem.
The teachings and stories of my past served a role. They were formative, for they shaped me. They provided me with a place to grow from. These teachings from my religious and cultural upbringing inspired me to grow beyond them by growing into them. I grew into them by their growing deeper and deeper into me.
Growing into the teachings means growing to appreciate their metaphorical connotations. Also, we realize these stories and teachings emerge from our ancestors' minds and hearts. Through them, our ancestors speak to us. The wisdom remains far deeper than the husk of literalism. Literalism tends to trap teachings in time. Metaphor gives teaching a timeless quality.
We can honor the sacred traditions, stories, and teachings that have shaped our lives. We can feel them still living in our bones. We can appreciate they were gifts from our ancestors. Stories connect us to those who lived the traditions before us.
Growing into these teachings, we do not need to abandon them. Tradition is not bad. We see and experience traditions more fully, for we have freed them. We have freed them, for they have freed us.
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Some of us will change sacred traditions. Some of us will seek to walk two - I live instructed and inspired by my native Christian faith and Buddhism. The Dharma and Gospel I find inspiration and guidance through. We need a sense of connection with a sacred lineage. The lineage is those who have walked the path before us. In walking it, we walk with them, for the path is timeless. Walking it, we listen to the stories, for our ancestors speak to us through them. Connected to the ancestors and their stories, we are never alone.
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Christmas Eve morning, I helped decorate two Christmas trees where I live in Maine. It reminded me of doing so as a child; my body remembered how it put decorations on the tree, as though I had done it yesterday - I had not decorated a tree in decades. This was a way to honor my ancestors in the faith of my childhood. Christmas was happening on a cold Christmas eve morning in New England, far away from where I, with my birth family in Georgia, once decorated a Christmas tree. Yet, those times lived as though now, for they were. I did not think about the meaning of Christmas. I simply became one with decorating and sharing the moment with a friend. We talked and laughed and celebrated the process. In this, time stopped, and Christ was born in a Bethlehem called Damariscotta.
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The teachings of our past may take on new meaning. This is natural, for as we grow, we see differently. We begin to intuit the subtle wisdom in the teachings.
The magic of it all can remain, and now, we know it is within us. Knowing it is in us, we can consciously choose the understanding to shape us further. Knowing it within, we see it without.
Hence, this Christmas lives now - it lives in me, for its truth lives within me. And in moments of sharing peace, it lives. In moments of loving, it lives. In moments of being grateful, it lives. Christ, so much more than someone born some two thousand years ago, lives for lived before. Yet, we will understand this Christ in many ways, some not fitting in a church or temple. Christ cannot fit within any religion or doctrine, any not-religion or not-doctrine, even as Love cannot.
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No, I do not take all the biblical stories about that first Christmas literally. Yet, I take the stories seriously. The same spirit is here. In this sense, the stories live, and we are invited to live the stories. They have shaped many of us, as we have shaped them by living them. We sat with them long enough for them to root themselves deeply within us and unveil their deeper, broader implications and invitations.
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*©Brian K. Wilcox, 2021.
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse.