By Malinda Seneviratne –
Christmas came to me as cards, the colours green and red, and pictures of snow. This was when I was a child. I didn’t know back then that Jesus Christ was not a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white man who was born in a snow-covered day in December. It took me a while to understand that history can be read as a process of appropriations, re-crafting and the re-crafted being marketed as truth.
I am a Buddhist so I could be forgiven for growing up thinking that Christmas was a festival; made up, as I said, of greeting cards, Christmas trees, carols and such. It didn’t take long, however, for me to understand that there was a lot more to Christmas than the glitter. After factoring out frill, myth and appropriation, there’s still so much of value in the story of Jesus Christ and not just for those who see him as ‘Son of God’, ‘Saviour’ etc. At least, that’s my impression, from my reading of the Bible and understanding of relevant ecclesiastical matters. This is perhaps why Christmas appears to me as a monumental fiction.
No, I am not opposed to the celebration, the cheer and festive spirit, not at Christmas nor on any other day. That’s a right and it is healthy too. Down-in-the-mouth is not exactly my cup of tea. I worry, though, whether this is all it is for the vast majority of Christians. I have no way of knowing of course about what Christians do in the in-betweens, befores and afters of ‘Christmassing’. I see a lot of crass commercialization, spectacle and bucks exchanging hands. Maybe what is not seen outweighs several time what is seen. Maybe not.
I can only speak of how I, a Buddhist, understand Christmas or rather what I do on Christmas. This morning I got a Christmas greeting. From a Buddhist. Jinadasa Liyanaratne’s email message was as follows: ‘This is to wish you and all members of your family a merry Christmas and a very happy and bright New Year. Although I am a Buddhist (or because I am a Buddhist!) I have great respect for Jesus Christ and his message of love. It is rather a pity that Christians pay more attention to the Réveillon (Christmas supper) than to the spiritual aspect of the occasion.’
As I said, I don’t know what the average Christian does before and after Christmas supper. I had never heard the word ‘Réveillon’ before either. As I always do when encountering the unfamiliar, I ‘looked up’. ‘Réveillon’ means ‘awakening’ in French and refers to an elaborate meal taken after attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Apparently, in the past, it marked the end of the four-week ‘Advent’ fast. I never thought, until today, that ‘fast’ was even remotely associated with ‘Christmas’.
‘Fast’ is made of a certain kind of denial and is usually associated with a determination to devote time to reflection on the fundamental tenets of one’s religious convictions. It is a time to reflect on frailties, on error to self, other and (if one so believes) to god. It is a determination to devote time to meditate on the eternal verities, obtain a sense of proportion on worldly and spiritual things. It is a time to be penitent; not just ask for forgiveness (from those who are believed to possess the authority to judge and confer forgiveness) but to grieve, to sigh (if one went to the relevant Hebrew word) and commit oneself to changing ways, call it ‘to see God’ if you will.
One does not have to be a theist to do all these things, or at least to obtain from Christmas that something that makes one a better Buddhist or Muslim, for example. We all have things to grieve over. We all have done and said things we ought to feel ashamed about. We all have reasons to reflect. We can all be better than who we are right now. Jesus Christ’s life was one of generosity. It was one of humility. He sighed.
This Christmas I will reflect on Jesus Christ, the beautiful man that he was and the remarkable life he led. I believe feasting would interrupt or disturb my meditation. I shall fast.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com