Christmas, Incarnation, and the Experience of the Sacred

Adoration of the shepherds reni - Christmas, Incarnation, and the Experience of the Sacred
Guido Reni’s The Adoration of the Shepherds.

Martin Luther once stated that the image of a baby lying in a manger demonstrates the profound wisdom and compassion of the Almighty. He believed it was human nature to be drawn to a baby because of the innocence and vulnerability a baby represents. C. S. Lewis once described the birth of Jesus as the equivalent of a human being becoming an ant.

Each of us has experienced encounters with the sacred or holy. Some refer to these experiences as seeing the face of God. Others describe such an experience as connecting with the Universe. Each of us, in our own way, experiences that which is greater than ourselves. These are invaluable encounters because they shape our understanding of the sacred, which in turn shapes how we interact with the holy.

The observance of Christmas is, for many, one of those times in which they encounter the Divine. For most, this encounter is a mystical or mysterious encounter, and as such, is ignored or dismissed as something simply strange or weird. Over the years, in my conversations with people concerning their spirituality, I have heard a wide range of stories concerning such experiences, and in almost every case, the individual had dismissed the encounter as nonsense. At the same time, these individuals were struggling with their personal conception or understanding of the Almighty.

As a culture, we put little stock into the idea of the mysterious. Our preference is for the rational, the understandable, or the explainable. If something cannot be explained with concrete evidence, then, as a society, we dismiss its relevance or truth. This reliance on the concrete and rational has significantly impacted our celebration or observance of Christmas.

For many, Christmas is simply a birthday party for a baby born somewhere in Israel at the beginning of the first century. This conception of Christmas provides a rational and logical explanation of this baby’s birth. In addition, the idea of Christmas as a birthday celebration subtly supports and encourages the commercial materialism that has engulfed the Christmas holiday. Further, it allows for the perversion of giving in such a manner that over-indulgence is acceptable. The mystery of this moment is subjugated to our ability (or inability) to understand or explain what took place. As such, the awe and wonder of this mysterious moment in time is lost.

To understand Christmas as the observance of the Incarnation of that which is holy into human form is to embrace the myth of a Power or Source that is beyond our understanding. To accept this myth of the sacred becoming human is to acknowledge our own limits of power and control. To open ourselves to the mystery of this event is to allow ourselves to experience awe and wonder in a very personal manner.

It is important to remember that the term “myth” used here is not myth in the popular, contemporary sense of something that is not true or real. Rather the term myth, as used here, is rooted in mystery; myth is choosing to believe the mystery rather than holding to a fact. This understanding of myth is grounded in faith and trust, and as such, leads each of us to experience the mystery, the wonder, and the awe of the holy differently.

The valuing of this myth is not to limit one’s experience or understanding of the Almighty. To place limits on one’s encounter of that which is sacred transforms myth to dogma and removes the personal nature of the individual’s experience. Rather, the importance of taking hold of the myth is to open ourselves to a more personal and intimate encounter with the mystery of the Universe, and, as such, become part of that which is holy and sacred.

The experience of that which is greater than ourselves can take place in a variety of ways and settings. For one individual, the encounter might take place in nature, or in a quiet moment at dawn. For another individual, this experience might come through music, or a piece of art, or poetry. For yet another person, this experience may take place in the context of a relationship, or in a group. These are just some of the ways we can experience the mystery of the Divine, but there are many more.

Whether or not we are aware of these private experiences, they shape our perception of that which is holy. In turn, our perceptions mold our understanding and interactions with the sacred. The manner in which we interact with the Divine molds our view of our mortality, our sense of belonging and connectedness, and perhaps most significantly, it shapes our sense of meaning and purpose for our life.

In the liturgical traditions of Christianity, the 12 days between December 25 and January 6 are called the twelve days of Christmas. These days mark the movement of Jesus coming to rescue the Jews from captivity and restore the nation of Israel as indicated in the shepherd’s presence at the manger to the arrival of the three wise men symbolizing Jesus coming to save all people. These twelve days are to be days of reflection upon the ways and means in which one experience’s the presence of God or the Almighty in his or her life.

Whatever your place or orientation in your spiritual journey, these are good days to meditate on your experience of the Divine. To reflect on the ways in which you interact with the Universe, and how that interaction influences and directs your life.

However you choose to live during these holidays, may your life be filled with awe and wonder, and with love and peace, and may you experience contentment!

— Steve Fehl

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