Monday, December 16, 2013

Why Christ can never be in Christmas

When this festive season comes, a lot of people go crazy – literally and figuratively. Only yesterday, I encountered once more the most ubiquitous sign of Christmas – traffic jams, both on the streets and in the shopping mall. And I was merely trying to withdraw some cash to get to a Christmas party, which I never got to attend because of the chaotic onrush of people and events at this time. As usual, I wished to myself this holiday season would be over and done with.

Thoughts of a jaded, old Scrooge? Perhaps.

But why are we always caught up in this quagmire created by people who tried to put Christ in Christmas when it is such an impossible thing. For years, I felt the poignant and sweet tug of the “holiday spirit” it was supposed to bring. But for so many reasons, I have realized it is one big misconception, if not a deception.

Honestly, I never met the real Jesus Christ through Christmas. Maybe the tiny, silent, helpless baby that He was, but not the man Pilate pointed out with the words, “Ecce homo!” No, not the bloodied Christ either (we are always looking at appearances of people and things) but the One Who reigns and rules over His kingdom from His throne in Heaven (we often miss the real nature and significance of people and their deeds).

But someone will say, “Christmas is for kids!” Really? How come adults have all the fun? They get more expensive toys than the kids as well. Apple Inc. never developed products (iPhones and iPads) for kids who have no money. Neither did Nokia, Hyundai, Ford, Sony, Prada and BMW. Most, if not all those Christmas concerts featuring foreign and local artists all have adult viewers in mind. Hence, while someone is giving gifts, someone else is getting richer.

Tell me if Jesus is in that kind of equation? But that is the way of the world, of business! Precisely, for the way of Christ is giving and making people richer by our gifts.

I believe in the spirit of giving and loving that God requires us to practice, but as a living habit, not as a tradition or a token deed in relation to a religious feast or cultural event. The whole imbalance or impertinence of how we do things then, especially in relation to this so-called Feast of Feasts, leads us to investigate closely whether Christ is truly in Christmas.

Christmas, first of all, is not a spiritual necessity. Why? Because it is a religious feast set up to replace an ancient pagan feast dedicated to the god, Saturn, during winter solstice. From its inception alone, and as perceived by some denominations which avoid the whole affair entirely, Christmas is not a legitimate discipline or work of grace required or established by the Lord or taught by His apostles to bring us into the maturity of the faith. Meaning to say, it is not a necessary pathway through which we can attain spiritual maturity in our relationship with God and with others.

Sure, so many would use the season as a tool to remind believers and even non-believers of the great gift of Heaven in sending the Savior of the world. But why could we not have that any other day or month, or every month or every day, for that matter? Sure, we also do that; but Christmas is a special occasion.

Indeed, a birth, especially that of the Messiah, is something special and worth celebrating; but that reason is not as important and essential as the fact that He came to suffer and to die for us and that He now reigns triumphant in Heaven. Which is more necessary and vital then: the hype of celebrating His birth with so much gaiety, extravagance and, at times, wild abandon or the urgency of following His will consistently on a daily basis with the same self-sacrificing and faithful obedience He spent His life on Earth?

If it is indeed necessary to celebrate this feast with the idea of giving to and loving others, why do we not celebrate the idea through actual practice without the need to perform a ritual or a tradition which has all but been kidnapped by the money-makers and turned into a big merchandising bonanza not just every December but throughout the whole year?

In essence, we have turned the feast that Christmas is into a big marketplace for people and not a real opportunity for people to devote themselves to the genuine task of spiritual transformation leading to the perfection of our souls and spirits in the image of the Divine Nature. When shepherds knelt down before the babe in the manger, what did they bring? Nothing but their dusty sandals, sweaty cloaks and their joyful hearts. When the magi came, what did they really bring? Not just gifts but the confirmation of a prophecy, their adoration of the King of Kings and the veracity and majesty of divine knowledge working through human science (which today has become a derelict from Universal and Natural Truth). And all of that, lived through the lives of humble and of learned people of the East. Whether led then by angels or divine knowledge, our response to God’s calling in our lives must be genuine and spontaneous, not dictated by religious tradition, human convention or lifeless rules or regulations.

And there is the other common idea or belief that Christmas has the unique ability to kindle or rekindle the spirit of innocence and joy we once felt or experienced as children when we first gleaned the beauty and grandeur of the coming of the son of God into the world. This is a very valid point and one which most Christians can relate to. Many will even argue that God has used Christmas, corrupted and materialistic as it might have become, as a channel for people to appreciate God’s love for sinners.

Granted. But while the Muslim merchants or the Communist-Chinese toy manufacturers hitch a free ride on the wagon to make some profit over this annual holiday, we have mindlessly turned the purity of the Gospel and the simplicity it was meant to develop in our lives into an excuse to, well, party on, make some or a lot of money, splurge, carouse, renew personal ties with howling hoopla or move on to a new chapter in our lives with unabashed merriment.

And so, just like Mary and Joseph trying to find an inn to lodge in for the night, Christ – the suffering worker, the wandering teacher and the forgiving but just Ruler NOW seated in Heaven -- has had a terrible time trying to find a solid day, or a full hour, or even half a minute in our hearts keeping our attention to His real message. Not the message of His birth or the host of angels proclaiming the majestic event (every priest and preacher has a canned sermon for the occasion) but the fact that all has been done and finished (every Christian writer has a load of chapters to show us how to obey Christ).

Yes, God’s part has been accomplished for our benefit; but have we truly begun our OWN work of harvesting souls – beginning with our own – for His kingdom? Do we share the Gospel or write on Facebook or Twitter our own insight into what God is doing in our lives daily? A very easy thing to do. Yet, do we say or write things in order for people to like our posts? Or do we say and write things that truly matter even if they rub against people and make them hate us? Like saying that Christmas has become Christ-mess? And that there is a more excellent way of following Him – such as perfect, unconditional love?

Which brings us to the final reason why Christ could never be in Christmas, which is: Christmas is nothing but history. And like most historical facts, it exists only in the mind and in the images, ceremonies or monuments we have made out of it. And that is what Christmas is all about: a big monument to a finished, factual and established event whose purpose we have not genuinely and generally succeeded in realizing in our own lives.

Who or which among our world leaders, governments, business companies and even religious corporations who claim to uphold Christ’s teachings can truly say they have implemented the true reign of peace, justice, freedom, equality, goodwill and unity that Christ Himself envisioned it? Who among our own leaders can be truly worthy of the calling of the angels as being “men of goodwill”? Who among them and among us shout like children and sing with glee of the birth of Jesus and yet think nothing of transforming our lives and doing what is necessary so that we can help the poor and the oppressed? It might come as a surprise that when Christ returns, these very leaders we look up to might be the very ones at the frontline of those who will reap the condemnation of the Great Judge that Christ is today and upon His return.

If this is all that Christmas is: a shallow recollection of events that does not compel us to see its essence and to utilize its power to bring about lasting change in our society, then what kind of God would want to be part of it? Does Christ truly reign over our lives and our society or are we ruling in His place through our corrupt ways and selfish laws?

History is but a lesson. And history is useless if not lived in the present and for a whole lifetime.

The birth of Christ – as history -- is something that is not only special and glorious it should cause us, if we truly are serious history students, to dig deeper into what His life was and is all about and what His teachings are meant to accomplish in our nation and in this world. Yet, how many of those who raise their wine to Christmas truly believe in the virgin conception of Jesus? How many who gorge on sweet desserts and expensive holiday food truly believe in the miracles He performed and, hence, also in the those He can do for them now and in the future – whether to heal them or save them and their loved ones from danger or sins? How many of us who greet with the words “Merry Christmas” do so to cheer ourselves and others and truly seek to bring happiness in our communities through following the examples of Christ during His ministry? How many of us who sing “Joy to world, the Lord is come!” truly believe it and that He is coming again and, hence, also sing “Woe to the world, the Lord is coming to judge!”

Was Typhoon Yolanda – the strongest cyclone ever -- an untimely reminder of a world gone berserk because of climate change or a timely portent of the imminent return of Christ? Do we give relief and comfort to the victims to show that the spirit of Christmas lives in our hearts or because it is our duty to do so? There is a big difference there. The only reason we should do good is because God has been good to us in giving us the greatest gift of all – LIFE – and to spend that life in spreading His abundant grace.

True, a genuine celebration and recollection of the birth of Christ is a powerful tool to inspire us to obey His teachings. But all of that can be done entirely without any external or material tool to show to others we have done so other than the act of living according to His teachings. The feasts of the Jewish nation (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles) were accompanied with festive meals, not different from Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year. We all want to have a happy meal (not the fast-food kind) with family and friends. But in spite of the taking away of the regulations of the Law, have we not put in place a new and similar venue for ritualizing the significance and reality of God’s work in our lives and in the process turning it into nothing but a farce and an idolatrous practice? It seems we have. No, it has become such a deceptive show turning our attention to useless and petty things and not on worthwhile and sublime ideas.

Bright lights and dazzling lanterns may somehow remind us of the bright star of Bethlehem. Yes, they may truly remind us of the humble birth of Jesus. Christmas 2013 may, I pray, end up leading many people to consider the life and the teachings of Christ and make them live fully for Him in the years to come. But as long as we see Christmas merely as a seasonal religious feast and as a simple history lesson and not as a spiritual and living power causing us to become the living monuments of eternal divine principles, Christ will never be in Christmas.

In the same way that we have turned Christ’s birth into a shallow, festive spectacle instead of being finally applied through our own accomplished rebirth in His kingdom, we have also made His death-and-resurrection into a continuous, ritual event rather than effectively used to achieve our own death to our sins through a genuine conversion. Hence, whereas we should now dwell between that spiritual-death/spiritual-resurrection (salvation by faith) and our own coming physical-death/physical-resurrection (eternal salvation), we remain as babes caught in the childish games of unnecessary and ineffective commemoration of past events and not living and experiencing the real benefits of divine power working in and through our lives.

For ultimately, Christmas in our hearts is not and will never be the same as Christ in our hearts. Why? Because the former we love to sing and rehearse seasonally while the latter we dare not sing and practice daily as we should. Our inconsistency reveals our hypocrisy.

What did Christ say to the hypocrites? I never knew you.

The real Christ we need to know lived, died, arose and ascended to rule over us. Our own spiritual rebirth, life and resurrection in Christ alone will assure us of our own place in Heaven. Today, tomorrow and every day, from now on, this is the will of Christ, the ruling Savior.

Stop thinking of Jesus as a sweet, silent baby being praised by the poor and the rich – or, as some of us seem to be, by the pretentious king who was really out to murder the infant. Stop picturing Him as a cute doll, as lifeless and powerless as the image of a venerated saint enclosed in a glass case. Think of Him as Jesus Christ – the Living Son of God, Lord, Savior, almighty King of Kings and coming Judge of Heaven and Earth.

If you really know Jesus Christ and desire to follow Him, then celebrate Him in your heart right now without all the distractions people have put before you. Anything else you add to His name and His teachings is a burden -- hence, non-essential and even dangerous.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Fake Sounds and False Images: What do we listen to? Who do we listen to?

When we listen to music, what do we listen to?

The sound of the words, or their meanings, or their deeper significance? Or is it the timbre of the singer’s voice, the pleasing sense of the melody, or the rhythm of the beat behind the vocal performance? Or could it be the heavy thump of the bass guitar, the cadence of the percussion instrument, or the harmony of all the instruments playing together?

When we listen to music, who do we listen to?

The musicians who play silently but express their musicality behind the lead singer, the back-up singers who provide harmony, or the main singer who carries the melody and the lyric? Or is it the arranger who has orchestrated the whole performance into a unified expression of its unique musical character? Or maybe the sound mixer who has cleaned up the whole audio quality of the music? Or could it be the composer who by his or her lonesome created the seed of an idea and worked with others to come up with a full display of artistic excellence?

Perhaps, we do all of these things at one time or another in the process of enjoying music. Perhaps, more of a few things than the rest. Hence, if you are a lead guitarist, you would probably listen more to that instrument than any other. Or, if you are a mere music appreciator, you might probably just listen to the song as a whole without any particular regard to all or any of the parts we mentioned. Some may not even listen to music at all but listen to other things over, above or behind the music that may be playing in an elevator, in a concert hall or in a parking lot.

So, what message do we get from listening then? We could be listening to other things not really that audible to the ears and getting an entirely different message not intended by what we heard. Or, as expected, listening and believing what we were led to hear and accept.

So, when we listen to or watch a TV program, what do we listen to and who do we listen to?

Is it the news anchor reading the news, the comedian delivering his punch line or the interviewer pestering a guest with personal questions? Perhaps, we are hearing what we are watching but not actually listening to the meanings or significance of what people are saying and doing.

We could be somewhere else listening to something or someone else in our mind.

And how many times have we seen a movie scene and then all of a sudden we realize there was a new dimension to what the words were really saying? Not in the context of the movie but in the context of your new and present situation in life. Whereas, as a child you might have admired Mowgli’s bravery in Jungle Book when he said he was not afraid of Shere Khan, the mean tiger; but now you realize he was stupid to feel and think that way.

Hence, when we pray or read the Bible, what do we listen to and who do we listen to?

Is it our voice reading the text, whether aloud or in silence? That is, do we understand the words spoken as our own ideas or the words and meanings of God Himself? And is our prayer, spoken by us in our hearts and minds, made up of words we have learned to use and are now applying to express our own desire over and against that of God’s and not in accordance and in submission to His desire for us? Or are the words we speak, aloud or in silence, words we have spoken because the Spirit of God, whom we have allowed to enter into our hearts, not just at the moment of prayer but way before we even learned to pray in the Spirit’s control, has given us the ability to select the thoughts and the words that befit the character of one who has given himself or herself up under God’s complete control?

Do we listen then to ourselves or to the Lord, the Holy Spirit? Is the music we play or listen to an extension then of the Spirit guiding us to a level of divine character closer to His very nature or does it lead us gradually away from the initial work He had started in your life when we received the Spirit into your heart? Is the recreation we engage in or the education we are occupied with or is our present work we do a constant reinforcement of what the Spirit is building up in our life as children of God; that is, is everything that we do at every moment an expression of the living offering that God wants us to be and to give?

Do we do things then expecting to hear God say “Well done, good and faithful servant” and not hearing ourselves say “I have done good” without waiting for or even expecting His approval? Or do we just live and leave it up to Him to make the judgment? That is, not judging for ourselves whether we truly hear and see Him (as He has revealed Himself and not as we have conceived Him to be) and strive to follow His ways?

Are we genuinely listening to God in the silence of our hearts and minds, in spite of all the noise and chaos that go around us? Do we truly seek to understand the meaning of life through a continual awareness of the value of seeking the will of God in all that we do by listening to the Spirit’s voice, the voice of Jesus, the still small voice we call our conscience?

Or is our conscience entirely our own and of our own making?

Many have burned their consciences that they no longer feel shame, guilt or regret. They can hear but do not listen. They can see but do not understand. They can appreciate but do not commit their life completely through godly living.

To be a child of God is to keep one’s eyes and ears attentive to His words. To keep our spirit a reverberant image of His Spirit. Listen well and be very watchful. The world is full of so many fake sounds and false images.

(Photo -- taken on Mt. Pulag's peak -- of my former student and fellow photography-enthusiast, Shirley Bernardo of Bantay, Ilocos Sur.)