The Rebirth of Reality: An Existential Interpretation of Christmas
In the midst of holiday busyness, shopping, event planning, and family drama I wonder if many of us seriously consider the essential question that is always there underneath the frantic rush for parking spaces and torn wrapping paper…What is Christmas really all about? Given the current state of our American culture, I believe it is quite difficult, assuming we are evaluating the situation honestly, to arrive at any answer other than that Christmas mostly represents our consumer-driven values in extremis. Christmas-related products and imagery are appearing in retail stores before Labor Day. Need I say more? However, beyond the undeniable commercialism, the season’s hottest new techno-gadgets, and mass-produced nativity sets, there is a story that is inconveniently rooted in an explicitly religious source, the Christian New Testament scriptures. Probably the greater majority of Americans have at least a vague and very general understanding of the story of the birth of Christ and that the Christmas holiday is a celebration of that event. Some people passionately believe in this event (however they may interpret it), others passionately reject and oppose this event in terms of its religious or spiritual meaning, and others are relatively indifferent toward this event and just don’t seem to care too much either way. What I think is important to note is that whatever else Christmas has become in our society its religious/spiritual foundation is a historical, cultural, and psychological fact that is always present and to which we must respond.
Let me be very clear here. My intention is not to persuade any one to accept a particular religious perspective, or even a specifically Christian perspective, regarding the meaning of Christmas. I strongly respect the right of all people to interpret and respond to this holiday in their own unique way, whatever that may be. For myself, as a Christian existentialist (my religious/spiritual identity is extremely complicated; suffice it to say that I can now only utilize the former term when it is joined with the latter term), Christmas holds deep and profound meaning for me as a celebration of Christ’s birth, although accessing and maintaining this experience is a serious struggle every year. I suppose that is what primarily concerns me about our cultural situation and the Christmas season; can its religious/spiritual foundation be genuinely meaningful for our collective culture and for each individual person within it? I believe, and want to humbly suggest, that it indeed can and perhaps should be.
I imagine that many people reject the religious/spiritual foundation of the Christmas story for a variety of reasons, because they are adherents of a different religion or spiritual tradition/practice, they are non-supporters or opponents of religion/spirituality in general or Christianity in particular, they cannot honestly accept or believe in the related traditional Christian doctrines, etc. Precisely this, I think, is what is so tragic about the situation, the fact that too many people seem to get stuck in these issues and don’t realize that they truly don’t matter. It doesn’t ultimately matter whether or not you believe that Jesus is the son of God, that he is God and was born of a virgin, or that you assent to abstract doctrines such as the Divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, and the Immaculate Conception. What does ultimately matter is whether or not you directly experience a deeper, living reality of your own being, the beings of others, and Being-itself. The prologue in the gospel of John proclaims the reality of the Logos and that the Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Within the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which forms the conceptual framework and basis for John’s prologue, the Logos is the originating principle of reality, the cosmic ground of meaning, Being or Existence itself. To follow the great theologian Paul Tillich, an existential interpretation of Christmas asserts that we are estranged or separated from our own beings, other beings, and the ultimate Ground of Being, that this condition can be overcome, and that we can be reunited with our own beings, other beings, and the Ground of Being or Existence-itself.
These are existential dynamics that everyone can understand and to which all can relate, because they constitute the essential core of the human predicament. To some extent we all experience brokenness and a need for greater wholeness in these dynamic aspects of our lives. We all need to discover and become our true selves, to become closer to others, and to experience a meaningful connection with the ultimate source of our lives. We are each, in our own way, stalked by the haunting awareness that all is not as it should be, that we can be more fully alive in our lives and that life itself can be much more real, deep, and meaningful than the anemic excuse for life that we complacently accept as a comforting and less threatening substitute. We desperately crave an end to the superficial, shallow, illusory, and deadening reality of life and the beginning of a more vibrant, full, integrated, and actualized Reality. We long for healing and rebirth…and the meaning of Christmas is that we can experience them, at any time and in every moment of our lives. The birth of the Christ child means that the old reality has been overcome and a new reality, a new state and condition of things is present…Reality is here and we and the world can be reborn into it. The ultimate question is whether or not we will open ourselves to receive this most precious gift from Existence, the opportunity and second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) chance to truly exist and become real, to live lives that our worthy of our Source and our best selves. Will you let the Christ child be born in you; not to be a “religious” person or a “Christian,” but, regardless of your particular worldview and belief/value system, to become a more whole and fully alive human being? May Christ be born in us and may we be reborn.
-- Scott Kiser