My Christmas reflections this year roam somewhat afield from Christmas itself. They are really about the birth of divine light into this world, particularly through the life of Jesus and through A Course in Miracles, and the great challenge of fully receiving that light.
There are two ways I know of to understand how religious ideas arise and why there exist so many similarities between different religious traditions. Both ways, I believe, are valid. But they are both very different. One of them says that there is a universal truth that can be contacted by anyone—through prayer, meditation and various other means for entering altered states. In these states, one is contacting roughly the same reality that others have contacted. Therefore, though the language and images one uses to describe this reality may differ, and though the practices one may recommend for approaching it may also differ, the reality being described and approached is basically the same. And this is why we find so many similarities between various traditions. They were not copying each other, but simply tapping into the same spiritual reality.
I have always loved this idea and think there is great truth in it. But the second way, I believe, is also true. In this way, every now and then, special circumstances come together at a particular time and place, and provide the birthplace for a rare occurrence. This occurrence has been called a prophetic breakthrough (a term coined by a scholar whose name I forget). In other words, something from the higher and broader levels of the sacred and sublime breaks through into human history. And thus is born into our world some new slant on the ancient search for God, some revolutionary idea or perspective that has never occurred to anyone before. This slant is not only new, it is compelling. It answers long-standing problems, opens up new vistas and new possibilities, and carries with it an aura of truth and authority that bespeaks its divine origin. Therefore, it does not just break through, it explodes onto the field of human history. Once born, it fans out like wildfire, infecting virtually every tradition with which it comes into contact. And the world is never the same again.
That is how I see the appearance of Jesus 2,000 years ago. He himself was a prophetic breakthrough of the highest order. I don't think we can accurately reduce him to being simply another mystic, or prophet, or sage, or healer, who contacted the same thing everyone else did. For if we do, then it is some weird fluke of history that his image became so much more indelibly stamped on our world than that of other holy men. True, he must have contacted that same universal reality. Yet he must also have possessed some unique quality of character, some largeness of mind, some heroism of the heart, that allowed him to penetrate that reality more deeply. He must, I believe, have seen into its core and grasped, in a way that had not been done before, how this deeper reality relates to our human condition—how it reaches down to us and how we can reach up to it. And in so doing, he must have allowed more of its heart and its fullness to flow into the wide circle of his own being.
Thus, I think that Jesus' mark on history does not simply rest on his followers' good marketing techniques mixed with a liberal dose of good luck. Ultimately, I believe, he made such a colossal mark because of who he was as a person; because there was simply something about the man. That is what it comes down to—there was something about him; something indefinable, something bewitching, something profoundly attractive, something that stirs in us nameless longings and sublime aspirations. He reminds us of some nobler state, some higher condition so different from this world, yet just beyond the edge of our awareness. Simply put, when we as a world look at Jesus, we seem to see more of God in him than we do in anyone or anything else on this earth. That is a sweeping and risky statement, I admit. Yet looking at civilization's overall response to him down through the centuries, I believe it is warranted.
Such was the power of his character that it spoke unmistakably through the gospels, which were written down decades after his death by people who had never met him, and which were filled with later traditions and interpretations. Despite the gap of time and distance, despite the clutter of misinformation, his brilliant light still shone through those pages. In them our world first encountered a man who we have never been able to get over, a man who has continued to entrance us after all these centuries.
A few years ago a book was written by Jaroslav Pelikan called, Jesus Through the Centuries. It charts the many images we have seen Jesus through, the many ways we have envisioned him. One of Pelikan's more interesting conclusions is that even after the power of the Church began to wane many centuries ago, the hold that Jesus had on our collective psyche still remained. The ensuing secular ages still found in him something which they felt championed their highest values, something which lifted them toward the good, the true and the beautiful. In other words, as we threw off the dominance of the Church, we held firm in our embrace of Jesus. We simply decided that whoever he was, he was bigger than Christianity. Pelikan closes the book with these stirring words:
The later chapters of this book show that as respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. For the unity and variety of the portraits of "Jesus through the centuries" has demonstrated that there is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, his person and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a "beauty ever ancient, ever new." And now he belongs to the world.
That he belongs to the world is testimony to some innate recognition of him on the part of humanity. Something in our world recognizes something in him. There is, however, a down side to this. The embrace of the world is a two-edged sword. For what is loved by the world will inevitably be used by the world for its own crazy, conflicted and chaotic purposes. And certainly this is what happened with Jesus. What else would we expect? The world does not have the best track record with prophetic breakthroughs. The same thing that makes them so inspiring also makes them deeply threatening. For they call us beyond the ego; they call us home. Thus, we try to find a way to drink in their good feelings while simultaneously defusing their threat. We try to possess them and to use them in service of the very goals they came to replace. Soon after their holy birth, alarmingly soon, they are bought and sold, distorted and misused, popularized and bastardized. It is an ironic pattern of history that when something of Heaven breaks through, you can expect all hell to break loose.
Different people will pick different dates for when things started to go wrong with the legacy of Jesus, when we started to distort his pure light. In centuries past people almost universally assumed that it began after the Apostolic Age, after the days of the first-century primitive church. Now, however, more and more people suspect that the distortion started with the primitive church, that as soon as Jesus left this world his own apostles started things off on a dramatically wrong foot (a point of view with which the Course is in agreement; see T-6.I.14-16). In light of modern scholarship, we can see with clarity how they changed the focus from his message of radical transformation in God to their message of faith in him. It was an easy mistake to make, an understandable one. In fact, it was simply a picture of their personal experience. Something had come into their lives, had mesmerized and enchanted them, had swept them away from their former existence and left them forever transformed. What was it? Was it their personal application of his radical message? No, it was him; it was Jesus, the man. In light of their overwhelming experience of him, what else would they proclaim?
Yet now so many of us look back and lament the lost opportunity for humanity. If only the apostles had done it differently, we ponder, what would have happened? If only they had made their ministry about his message, his way to God; if only they had faithfully transmitted—rather than diverted—his radiant prophetic breakthrough, what would the world be like today? Though we will never know, many of us suspect it would be a far more loving place.
Now, however, some of us feel that we have another chance, a chance to do it right this time. We, the students of A Course in Miracles, have acquired the strange and outlandish belief that his light, his presence, has once again broken through into our world. We believe he has arranged yet another appearance on the stage of human history. As the author of the Course told its scribe, Helen Schucman, "The Child has come, and has been born again." At least in the eyes of some of us, Christmas has come once more.
Out of respect to Jesus and what he represents to our world, no one should make this claim lightly. Saying "Jesus" in this hurting world is analogous to yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater; there ought to be a law against doing it frivolously. Yet the more time I have spent with the Course, the less frivolous that claim has become to me; the more my conviction has grown that in the Course we have something that is worthy of the name of Jesus. And I don't say that lightly. Recently, I have boiled my sense down into the following idea: In Jesus we had a man the likes of which the world has never seen. And the Course, I believe, is as a teaching what Jesus was as a man.
Therefore, I personally feel that the advent of A Course in Miracles, like the physical advent of Jesus, is a prophetic breakthrough of untold significance. Like any prophetic breakthrough, it partakes in great measure of what has gone before. It echoes universal truths that have been contacted by saints and seekers down through the ages all over the world. But it adds something new, a new slant, a fresh perspective on the quest for God that never occurred before to anyone. To my knowledge, no one has ever said that we best awaken to formless, transcendental reality by letting go our perception that other people are guilty, and by sharing with them that new perception. Newness such as this is what makes the Course a breakthrough. It solves old problems, charts new territory and opens up new vistas. If the Course really is this, then like all such breakthroughs it is destined to explode onto history. I truly believe that we who stand at its beginning are watching the beginnings of a spiritual revolution.
Which raises the question: "What are we going to do with him this time?" Will we make the same mistakes we made 2,000 years ago? I doubt that we will make the exact same mistakes. So far the majority of Course students show no inclination for making Jesus himself into the primary focus or for forming an organized, hierarchical church. Yet I think that we do face the same general choice: Will we use his message as he intended, as a catalyst for transcending ego and attaining real love and forgiveness, or will we find some way to avoid doing this? We are sure to do something with the Course. Like Jesus, the Course is simply too attractive, too compelling, for us to leave alone. So, no matter what we do with it, its popularity will most likely continue to grow over time. And that, I think, is a little scary. For it means that the Course could hypothetically be adopted by millions or even billions of people over centuries of time, and two thousand years down the line a perceptive observer could still possibly say (as was said about Christianity), "A Course in Miracles is a nice idea. Too bad nobody has tried it."
That for me is a deeply sobering thought. It would mean that we had done it again: We let him come, let him shine his light on us, we basked in that light and loved and celebrated it, and kept right on celebrating without ever really answering its call.
Yet that eventual possibility is a long way down the road. The Course has been around now for only 20 years. It is in its very infancy. In that infancy, of course we are fumbling around with it and doing a lot of foolish, misguided and half-hearted things. All of that is to be expected. That is how it works down here. Personally, I am taking the long-range view. I have come to the belief—which in part is just a hope—that over time we are going to grow into the Course, that our understanding and use of it will increasingly deepen, and that we will more and more step into the life it promises. I truly hope, and almost as truly believe, that after two thousand years, people will look back and marvel at how much more loving a place the world is due to A Course in Miracles.
But what does all of this mean for us right here and right now? How do we do our small part in helping the world make full use of this prophetic breakthrough? I think every Course student knows the answer to that: We make full use of it ourselves. We drink in its ego-shattering elixir just as deeply as we possibly can. We remind ourselves that within its pages are benefits that we have not yet dreamt of; liberation and freedom that we cannot now conceive. We also remind ourselves that the same thing in us that resists God and joy also resists the Course, and tries in subtle and overt ways to limit, discredit and compartmentalize the Course in order to protect itself. In other words, we acknowledge that all of the forces that distorted Jesus' gift 2,000 years ago and would distort the Course now are active in our own minds, on a constant basis.
Here is my suggestion. I suggest, as we are about to begin the new year, that we ask ourselves and our internal Teacher two very honest questions:
- How am I resisting the Course and the liberation that it would lead me to?
- What can I specifically do to more fully take hold of that liberation?
If we do hear or feel answers to these—and many of us will no doubt hear very direct and insightful ones—perhaps we can make the answer to the second question into our New Year's resolution. What better way to let "a new year…be born from the time of Christ" (T-15.XI.10:1)? In fact, this is the spirit of the Course's own comments about the New Year—as a time to take hold of what the Course holds out to us. I will therefore close with its own remarks about the New Year:
There is much to do, and we have been long delayed. Accept the holy instant as this year is born, and take your place, so long left unfulfilled, in the Great Awakening. Make this year different by making it all the same (T-15.XI.10:9-11).
This year determine not to deny what has been given you by God (T-16.II.8:2).
This is the year for the application of the ideas that have been given you (T-16.II.9:4).
This year invest in truth, and let it work in peace (T-16.II.9:7).