Christmas is the time to focus on the child: your childhood, perhaps your children, the world’s children, your child spirit, fragile beginnings, innocent rejection of the world’s adult ways. It the season to be unreasonably generous, interested in toys, and given to playing games and giving attention to dolls and puppets and electric trains.
The positive, affirming and hopeful teaching of Jesus is not only foreseen in the infant of the nativity, it is also symbolized by that child. When any child is born, we have no idea what he or she will become. The possibilities are infinite, and therefore the child represents a new being. He is not a copy; he is an original.
Christmas, whether it commemorates the birth of the infant at Bethlehem or the return of sunshine, is about the hope for new and abundant life. Christmas is a celebration for the soul, because the soul is the principle of life and vitality. The Greek word for soul, psyche, means “breath”; and the Latin anima leads to our English word animate, which means “come to life” or be “full of life”. The child reminds us of the infinite possibilities of life available to us, and we celebrate that vitality in the season of good cheer, gift-giving and community.
When I was a child I felt the magic of Christmas in my very being. If there is such a thing as a resurrected body, that is who I was on Christmas Day. My whole family together evoked that magic and laid an important foundation for me as a religious person and someone open to enchantment. I didn’t know at that time that seventy years later I’d be writing about Christmas having a depth of meaning I have never read about elsewhere. My early experience of Christmas is now fulfilled in a way I would never have anticipated, and now I feel that this book comes out of my enchantment with the solstice, the Jesus philosophy, and my parents’ good will.
By the way, when I mention “the Jesus philosophy,” I want to emphasize the role of Jesus in giving us a worldview that differs from the one we live by today. For him, human interactions are based on the model of friendship; love is the main dynamic, but it is not so personal or sentimental, and rather than go around being productive he teaches and models an approach based on healing. This is a different way of being in the world, a new philosophy.
But my sense of Christmas is also different now. I understand better that Jesus was addressing all people on the planet, not wanting them to join his organization but to adopt his vision for a better human race. I now see how Christmas and Jesus’s vision line up, and I see that the enchantment of Christmas is a taste of what would be possible if human beings could really love each other. Given all of that, I understand how the infant in the manger symbolizes the new life in me, the potential I have to be a new kind of being dedicated to agape, to a love of the other whoever he or she is.
This is a remarkable mystery worthy of celebration and suitable in any setting on earth. It makes no sense to see it exclusively as a ritual for Christians. It has meaning only as a plan for the entire human race—and therefore Christmas belongs to everyone.
It’s easy to be profoundly cynical about the possibility of a world living by love. So many find the idea of utopia and of Jesus’s proposal about loving your enemies not just preposterous but naive and fantastical. It will never happen, they think, and if you expect it, you are not acquainted with the ways of the world. To these people, utopia is a wonderful, wishful fantasy, and an unrealistic, childish illusion.
A somewhat easier approach to utopia is to see it as a way of imagining an ideal future, and you strive toward it knowing that you will never fully achieve it. This kind of utopia keeps you on track. You hope for a perfect life, and that hope allows you to steadily improve. Your ideal motivates you.
But I don’t get the impression that this is the kind of world Jesus was recommending. In an important set of words, he frequently said that the “kingdom of the sky” or “the kingdom of God” is drawing near. Then he made two key points about this situation: 1) Be prepared. Don’t be left out in the cold. There will be two kinds of people: those in this utopia and those outside it. You don’t want to be in the old arrangement. 2) Don’t presume that you will be part of the new regime simply because you are Jewish or Christian or virtuous, believing that of course you will be “in.” Just the opposite: Many people who for external reasons think they’re automatically part of it will be left out.
You have to live this new way to be a member of the new community. You have to get the point that it’s all about a reversal of values. Financial success in this utopia could be an obstacle, not a measure of success. So give up that idea. That’s why the small-scale, experimental gifteconomy of Christmas is so important. It’s a tiny example of a new way of life, a one-day utopia, when we don’t demand a quid-pro-quo financial economy. Generosity is the thing, not financial shrewdness.
As a psychotherapist practicing a kind of depth psychology, I’m well acquainted with the shadow side of life and how imperfect the lives of well-intentioned people can be. I’m aware of my own failures and shortcomings. The same parents who gave me such wonderful Christmases also passed on emotional habits that have made my own life difficult, and some of those generational problems were due to religion. But I still believe in utopia, the kingdom of the sky, and I still think that Christmas is worth celebrating wholeheartedly.
As a therapist I’ve witnessed people dealing with signifi- cant failings in their childhood yet growing up to become beautiful, if not perfect, adults. They may not know themselves well, and they may struggle with certain issues in their lives, but through these very limitations they find beautiful solutions.
I don’t look for perfection, but for joy and happiness. At Christmas we don’t wish each other perfect lives but only “comfort and joy.” This is what I look for: not an end to struggle, but a level of understanding and adjustment so that we can say to each other, “Merry Christmas.”
In a similar way, it isn’t necessary to be physically healthy to appreciate the joy of Christmas. In our society currently we make a big thing of health, so much so that we seem to be constantly thinking about how to be healthier. In many instances our preoccupation with health, though obviously good to a degree, seems excessive and full of anxiety. Paradoxically, we worry ourselves to death trying to be healthy.
The Christmas ideal is different. Yes, take care of your health. But understand how important it is and how central to the Christmas message, to be merry, to have a hopeful, positive, and optimistic attitude, even if your health is bad or if life is not at its best. The infant Jesus is lying in a barnyard crib, and yet the emotional atmosphere is glorious and full of hope. What a lesson for us living in a time of worldwide conflict and personal challenges.
I don’t have a hygienic approach to life, and I don’t wish you a healthy Christmas. People can be unhealthy physically and emotionally and yet still be merry. In the kingdom I imagine, people find their beauty as much in their shortcomings and failures as in their strengths and successes. Utopia arrives when people stop pretending to be perfect or aiming in that direction and finally confront their dark sides. After depth psychology, we have to reimagine what it means to create a beautiful world. We don’t aim for perfection but for what the Japanese call wabi-sabi—the beauty of the imperfect and the fading. I wish you a wabi-sabi Christmas.
Notice how often I speak of beauty. Because we have been so deeply influenced by moralistic philosophies in our history, especially a misguided interpretation of the Jesus message as moralistic, we think of our goal as perfection—a blameless life. Instead, we could see the beautiful as our most excellent future. For myself, I can say that I hope that my life and that of my family is beautiful. I don’t expect perfection or unblemished health.
So, go on saying “Merry Christmas.” Don’t say, “To your health,” as important as health may be. This festival transcends health. Even if your health is bad, you can be merry. Don’t say, “I wish you a year without sin.” Christmas transcends moral anxiety. You can easily detect anxiety in people who worry about sinful action on the part of others instead of their own sinful action. That is not being merry, and it’s against the Christmas spirit.
Yes, be ethical. But your ethics can be rooted in your utopian vision of a world based on love and community. That is Jesus morality, radically different because good behavior is motivated by love. I say, “Jesus morality,” because Gospel ethics are different from the dos and don’ts we often associate with living a moral life. You don’t get stern warnings or lists of bad behavior from Jesus. Instead, you find a way of being moral that is positive and supportive. You’re good because you love and respect people and have worked through your self-interest and other forms of narcissism. You’ve tamed the passions that make you a danger to others.
The Christmas greeting is not about good behavior but about being merry, seeing the beauty and goodness of life, in spite of all the bad stuff.
Thomas More, the author of Utopia, commonly said to his family and friends: “Pray that we will meet merrily in heaven.” He especially used this phrase when he was in a cold, vaulted room in the tower of London waiting for his execution. Once I visited that cell and “heard” his words reverberate across the cone-shaped walls. I’ve always enjoyed his word merrily with its slight hint of Christmas, and I hope that I can be as dedicated to a sacred world as my namesake was in prison.
On an ordinary day you may suddenly realize that life is full of gifts, and you may think, “It’s like Christmas.” Christmas is not just a time of year, not just a festival. It’s an archetype of life’s generosity and giving. We encounter it all year long and celebrate it at the time of solstice.
Whenever you step away from the unconscious, ego-centered ways of the world and try to live in a different milieu, the kind that Jesus exemplified and spelled out in his teaching, then Jesus is born. Christmas happens; it is not a one-time historical event. At Christmas time we don’t memorialize an event from history; rather, we acknowledge and call to mind a deep archetypal event that can take place at any moment. Jesus could be born.
You may suddenly discover that money, though not negative in itself, is not the key to happiness. You learn through some great fortune that friendship and love are infinitely more important. At that moment Jesus is born.
When some new possibility for your life stirs in you, something heretofore unknown and unfamiliar, Jesus is born. It is Christmas. When suddenly you realize that you can open your heart in love, when you have kept it closed for years out of fear, it is Christmas. When you consider how to spend your time, and you go to a hospital to visit the sick, Jesus is born and it is Christmas.
Christmas is an archetypal event, deep within, and outside of history. Christmas is a mystery: It is not a puzzle to be figured out but a mysterious happening that transfigures life and gives it meaning. It makes life merry and worthy of our complete devotion.