Volume 1 Number 3, December 1990
Gloria and Kenneth Wapnick
It is not always recognized that Christmas, the most celebrated of all Christian holidays, has its origins in much older traditions. What we now celebrate as the Christmas season began in antiquity as a solar festival centering on the winter solstice (December 22), commemorating the lengthening of the day and the triumph of the sun’s light over darkness. In the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, Mithras, son of the god of light Ahura-Mazda, was himself identified with the sun and light. Eventually, Zoroastrianism and Mithraism spread throughout the Roman Empire, and the end of December was celebrated as the birthday of Mithras and the defeat of darkness by the light, as each day slowly grew longer. This fit in well with the Roman feast of saturnalia, December 17-25, which honored the god Saturn. The Roman celebrations, interestingly enough, included the exchange of gifts, family banquets, and holidays from work and school. At the dawn of the Christian era, and for more than three hundred years, these “pagan” observances continued; nevertheless, the early Christians celebrated Jesus’ birth on various dates. It was not until 354 A.D. that Pope Liberius ordered the faithful to honor December 25 as the official birth date of Jesus, conveniently dovetailing with the Mithraic and Saturnalian observances.
It is interesting to note that nowhere in A Course in Miracles does Jesus discuss any of the nativity references found in the gospels or in Christian tradition. In fact, he summarily dismisses the incarnation—the foundation stone of Christian theology—by stating:
The Bible says, “The Word (or thought) was made flesh.” Strictly speaking this is impossible. Thought cannot be made into flesh except by belief, since thought is not physical (T-8.VII.7:1).
Clearly, the Christian theological and liturgical emphasis on the special circumstances of Jesus’ birth—the Annunciation and the Virgin Birth—expressed most strikingly God’s direct intervention in human history by causing this event to occur. This seems to be a carry-over from Greek mythology where the gods and goddesses always intervened in human affairs, a situation impossible for the God of the Course, Who does not even know about the existence of the material world. Furthermore, we can say that the Annunciation and the Virgin Birth reflect a paradigm-myth to which we can no longer resonate, for they reinforce the “bitter idols” of specialness Jesus refers to in the manual (C-5.5:7). The Course states unequivocally that Jesus “was a man [who] saw the face of Christ in all his brothers and remembered God” (C-5.2:1), and further emphasizes his inherent equality with us by speaking of him as an elder brother, as much a part of the Sonship of God as we all are (T-1.II.3-4).
How then can we sift through the illusions surrounding Christmas to encounter the reality behind the symbol? As students of A Course in Miracles we should ask ourselves, echoing Jesus’ injunction: “What is it [Christmas] for?” And what purpose does it serve in our lives? Does holding on to the values inculcated in us by social norms and religious teachings interfere with, or does it further, our establishing a personal relationship with Jesus? Does Christmas with all its festivities and merry-making distract us from, or does it foster, our truly joining with the Sonship? Better yet, why is the Jesus of the Course so different from the biblical one? In the spirit of this important statement, “To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold” (T-24.IN.2:1), we may reflect on these questions as we enter the holiday season, and by asking Jesus’ help we can pass through the veils of illusion that hindered our vision of the truth.
Instead of being a holiday that at worst represents commercialism at its most rampant, or at best a holy day commemorating the special and unique sacredness of Jesus, Christmas can now become a symbol of the rebirth of the Christ in each of us: the holy light that shines equally in every seemingly separated fragment of the Sonship:
The sign of Christmas is a star, a light in darkness. See it not outside yourself, but shining in the Heaven within, and accept it as the sign the time of Christ has come (T-15.XI.2:1-2).
Thus the observance of Christmas reminds us that as we accept Jesus as our model for learning, we too can become manifestations of the Love of Christ, which, never having been separated from Its Source, needs no nativity to be. It simply awaits our acceptance, and of such is the reality of Christmas.