A CHRISTMAS MESSAGE
P. N. Benjamin
Delivered at the Indian Institute of World Culture, December 24, 2011
“LORD, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is doubt, let me sow faith; where there is despair, let me bring hope; where there is sorrow, let me bring joy; where there is darkness, light. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; not so much to be understood as to understand; not so much to be loved, as to love. For, it is in giving that we receive; in pardoning that we are pardoned; in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
I am a Christian by faith, Hindu by culture, and Indian by citizenship. But, permit me to add a word about my Christian commitment and witness in this troubled times. I have always loved John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, perhaps because its hero remains on the move up to the very end. Even when he is crossing that last river, with Mount Zion actually in sight, he is still assailed by doubts and troubled by the hazards of his journey. I, too, have found no finality in the quest for a sure faith, and do not expect, or even hope to find one. At the same time, I dare to say as I have plodded on the light has shone a little more brightly and steadily for me. To make this light shine before men, as Christ exhorted us, has always seemed to me the highest that any communicator can hope to achieve – even if it amounts to not more than, as it were, striking a match in a dark cavern, which flares up and flickers out. Such, at any rate, is the purpose of this message, undertaken with no expert knowledge, no sudden Damascus Road illumination; representing no more than the efforts of a skeptical mind to grapple with the circumstances of his life and time.
Christmas is the feast of our common humanity. Once a year, for a brief spell, we greet one another as human beings: we shake off the trappings with which we aspire to be more than human, and give up the arrogance of treating others as less than human. The labels of race and language, caste and creed, and class are laid aside.
“Happy Christmas”, we can say to a stranger and add a smile to it – nothing would be out of place. It is as if a gust of goodwill from out of the blue has swooped into our atmosphere and we all take a whiff of it. People are kinder, handclasps are warmer, even the miser opens his purse with a sheepish smile to any one who passes the hat around.
Christmas is also a feast of affirmations – even if only once a year we need to become aware of a set of values, which we tend to ignore in the daily commerce of life. We may grope in darkness but it is good to know that there is a gleam somewhere. Amidst all disenchantment around us we need to affirm our faith – in life, in ourselves, in others and therefore in God. We need to hope – hope against hope until as Shelly says, “Hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates”. And we need to love -- to rediscover that universal principle of life.
Bertrand Russell who explained to us why he could never be a Christian slipped back in another context to the core of Christmas message when he said, “The thing I mean, please forgive me for mentioning it, is love. If you feel this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, and an imperative necessity for intellectual honesty… although you may not find happiness, you will never know the despair of those whose life is aimless and void of purpose”.
Magnificat: A Song of Deliverance
There is more to Christmas than peace and goodwill. The story of the birth of Christ begins with a revelation to a peasant girl that she would be the mother of the Messiah – the Saviour of the world. She would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God. She was so overpowered by the message that she breaks into poetic utterance:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord/ And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour…/He hath showed strength with his arm/He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts/He hath put down the mighty from their seats/And exalted them of low degree/He hath filled the hungry with good things/And the rich he hath sent empty away…”
This Song of Mary is called the Magnificat. Mary sees a vision of a new order of things where the weak and the poor will throw off their shackles. It is a song of liberation for all humankind. It reflects the teachings of the prophets of the Old Testament who denounced the oppressors of the people who would sell the needy for a pair of shoes. The prophets were constantly exhorting the people to “untie the knots of the yoke, and loose the fetters of justice, to set free those who have been crushed”. Mary belonged to this oppressed section of the people.
It might seem strange that in this momentous hour of her life when the angel had cast her in this stupendous role, she should be preoccupied with justice for her people. But one can well imagine that, then as now, this was a burning question. The Jews were under the Roman yoke and longed for the Messiah who would liberate them. Mary’s Song is a song of deliverance not only from foreign domination but the oppressor within the gates.
She did not know then that beginning with the Magnificat the road would end at the cross where she would stand weeping for her son who would show the world an entirely new way. But now it is a cry for justice, liberation from the tyranny of the rich and the exalted. Thus, woven into the message of peace and goodwill is also the lesson that these conditions can only come when there is social justice.
The Church has side-stepped this problem dispensing charity while ignoring the deeper claims of equality. The Song of Mary is a reminder that charity without justice is an insult, and peace only a graveyard where there is no equality.
Yes, the voice of Christmas cries in the wilderness. It is not a call to violent revolution – for violent revolutions always end in tyranny of one kind or another. Christmas calls for a change of heart, a turning away from oneself to one’s neighbour, and therefore to God. We like to imagine that religion is a love affair between man and God, but that affair is possible only when one loves one’s neighbour.
Christmas reminds us that in a creative relationship there is God, man and always his neighbour – only in such a cooperative partnership can we hope for a restructuring of the social fabric, which will be permanent. In short, Christmas comes to remind us that we are all inextricably bound together in this brief sojourn on this troubled planet that either we are ALL saved or we are ALL damned for we are all human, all vulnerable, all in need of one another.
Is Jesus the only Prince of Peace?
Christmas takes Christians to the roots of their faith, the child in a manger. It is a cluster of events – the journey to Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, the manger, the mother and child and Joseph, even the cattle – these are enduring symbols of Christian faith.
The deeper meaning and enduring significance of Christmas point out that God’s love touches human life in a simple way – in the form of a child in the manger. Faith, in its deepest sense is a personal response to the Mystery of God that touches life but is not confined to it. It is priests and theologians who complicate it through ritual and doctrine. What can be more helpless than a new-born baby? Christmas demands that Christians joyfully accept and nurture the child to grow to maturity within their hearts and in the life of the Church.
Second, Christmas shows God’s concern for the poor and the lowly. The Church seems to have discovered Dalits and women only recently. The wise men from the East had to study the stars for a long time in order to predict the birth of this child. But to the shepherds in the field the message of hope came in a flash through song and light. What can be more lowly, more unhygienic than a manger for a baby to be born? And yet, the mother and baby survived without any complications
Third, Christmas is a community festival. It does not depend on an individual receiving a vision. From the beginning, there is a community of the faithful centered round the child, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds with their lambs, even the cattle in the corner, and later on, the three kings bearing gifts. Christmas emphasizes that the Church is not an institution with a hierarchy and doctrines but a community of believers sharing the love of God and serving the people in the name of the Prince of Peace.
The phrase “Prince of Peace” is too familiar, even too common. Like an overused coin it has lost its currency value. For instance, mass media today often overuse, misuse, even, abuse certain words. Television shapes the form of intellectual discourse. The demand for quick and short answers to serious questions that need time for reflection deprives words of their wealth and dignity. Ambiguity replaces precision.
Peace can be understood in two ways. It can mean peace within the heart, a sign of calmness, tranquility. This is what the Hindus describe as ‘shanthi’ or in Christian vocabulary it is “the peace that passes all understanding”. All religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, emphasise this inward character -- the depth dimension -- of peace. But there is another way in which the word “peace” is in more urgent demand during these times of conflict. This is peace between communities, peoples and nations. It is the restoration of relationships between “enemies” through forgiveness and reconciliation. It seems to me that the Christmas message in the song of angels refers to this: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men (people) with whom he is pleased (Luke 2: 14). But we must note that in the Christmas message peace within the heart of the individual and peace between communities are closely related.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the only Prince of Peace in history. But, such a claim leads to exclusiveness and arrogance. In a pluralist society like ours different religions may be regarded as different responses to the Mystery of God or Truth or the Ultimate. The question for us today is not which among the many religions is true but what each religion can contribute to the quest for peace.
Consider, for example, the life of Gautama the Buddha. About five centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was born, the Buddha preached the message of ahimsa, which is more than just abstention from violent acts. It is a positive attitude of compassion, described as maha karuna citta (great compassionate consciousness) towards all life. The Buddha extended it towards animals as well, long before people started talking about “animal rights”. Therefore our Buddhist friends can rightly claim that for them the Buddha is the “Prince of Peace”.
It is a fact that more wars and tragedies, the use of nuclear bombs, and environmental pollution took place in the last century in countries which professed to follow Christ. However, all of us must be careful not to point accusing fingers at others. Tragedies like communal riots and atrocities against Dalits take place in our country also.
Shallow friendliness for the sake of superficial peace is morally wrong. But the Mystery of Truth or God is infinite and inexhaustible. God’s love is generous and God’s truth infinite. Can any one community of faith claim exclusive monopoly to it? For a true follower of Christ the distinctiveness of the Christian faith does not begin and end with Christmas. As the child grows to maturity his peace-making ministry passes through the garden of Gethsemane to the cross. It is the combination of Bethlehem and Golgotha, the manger and the cross. That is the distinctive marks of Christian faith. Christian brothers and sisters in this country must realize that friends of other faiths have their own distinctive mark and identity.
Mahatma Gandhi was an apostle of peace who devoted his life to bring together Hindus and Muslims. He was assassinated. Remember, Yitzhak Rabin, the late Prime Minister of Israel, was a soldier-turned-peace-maker. He too was killed in the 1990s. Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu fanatic. Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fanatic. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism are much earlier than Christianity. Every religious community has its martyrs for peace. There is no single, exclusive way to peace within the human heart or among nations. Thus, exclusive claims, religious or secular, lead to fanaticism and conflict. In pluralist Indian society, commitment to one’s faith and openness to the faiths of one’s neighbours is the path to peace.
At a time of tension and conflict in the world, including our own country, the distinctive message of Christmas for us is this: that peace is eminently desirable, that peace-making is costly, and that while peace, as the gift of God, the creator of all humanity is singular, the paths to peace are always plural.
There are people of other religions, even secular people, who criticize Christianity as a religion and the Church as an institution, but yet respect and revere Jesus Christ, his life and teachings. Therefore, it was not strange that the title of a booklet written by Swami Ranganathananda of the Ramakrishna Mission on the eve of Christmas 1949 was: “The Christ We Adore”. The Swamiji said then: “Mankind has been offering its heartfelt adoration at the altar of Jesus the Christ for over two millenniums. And even today this child of Mary remains the source of inspiration for millions the world over”.
Christians must learn to adore Christ, obey and follow him because of the message of Christmas, “ the good tidings of great joy”, contained in the song of the angels: Be not be afraid…for unto you is born this day in the city of David a saviour which is Christ the Lord (Luke 2: 10-11)