The Holiness of Christmas

by Robert Perry

Christmastime has rolled around again, leaving countless worn, frustrated people wondering, "How can I make this time of year actually mean something?" For the spiritually-inclined, that question might take this form: "How can I turn this hectic, often crass holiday back into a holy day?"

I find an answer to these questions in one of Helen Schucman's poems, entitled, "The Holiness of Christmas":

Christmas is holy only if you come
In silence to the manger, to behold
Your holiness made visible to you.
Your gifts are but your open hands, made clean
Of grasping. Nothing else you lay before
The newly-born except your doubts and fears,
Your pale illusions and your sickly pride,
Your hidden venom and your little love,
Your meager treasures and unfaithfulness
To all the gifts that God has given you.
Here at the altar lay all this aside
To let the door to Heaven open wide
And hear the angels sing of peace on earth,
For Christmas is the time of your rebirth.(The Gifts of God, p. 97)

This poem re-enacts a time-honored scene: that of approaching the Christ child in the manger and bringing him gifts in homage to his holiness. Yet while employing this familiar image, Helen's poem puts new and startling twists on many of its most basic elements. In doing so it presents a different image of what Christmas is about, an image that might just be able to inject meaning and even holiness into our tired, crazy holiday season. I will comment on the poem sentence-by-sentence.

Christmas is holy only if you come
In silence to the manger, to behold
Your holiness made visible to you.

The very first words say something significant. "Christmas is holy only if…" The Christmas season is not inherently holy. It is not inherently anything. Time itself, and any portion therein, is what we make it. This season, therefore, is only holy if we decide to use it for a holy purpose. Its holiness or unholiness is in our hands. The Course's own comments about Christmas make this exact same point: "It is in your power to make this season holy" (T-15.X.4:1).

How do we use our power to make this season holy? By coming to the manger in silence. My favorite Nativity painting is one from 1490 by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. It is set inside a dark stable, in the middle of which is the manger containing baby Jesus. On the right, leaning over one end of the manger is Mary, her hands together in an almost prayer-like fashion. Behind her in the shadows is Joseph. On the left, at the other end of the manger, are five small female angels gazing on the infant. In the middle are a cow and a horse, also facing the manger. The infant's body is aglow, and this is the only light source in the entire room. All faces are turned toward him. All faces are lit with his pale white light. And all faces have nearly the same blank, expressionless stare. They are looking on something that evokes no human emotion. Their minds appear to be held suspended in the rays of the infant's light, emptied of all normal thought and feeling, filled only with this holy light. They are transfixed, as if they could go on staring at this wonder, silent and motionless, for hours.

That is the feeling that Helen's poem evokes in me, as if I am coming before the manger not just silent verbally, but silent in the deepest way: empty of all my schemes and plans, vacant of all my preconceptions and beliefs, totally receptive to the shining reality of this infant and what he has to show to me.

If you come to the manger in this way, what do you see? Traditionally, the visitors come before the manger to pay tribute to the holiness of the child. Though a beautiful idea, this doesn't really challenge our fundamental belief system. In a world where everyone seems unholy, one can easily imagine that someday, somewhere there will appear one absolutely unique child, born with the task of redeeming this unclean place.

Yet Helen's poem implies that if you come to the manger in true and profound silence, you see something not included in the traditional picture, something completely unexpected, something that does shake loose your basic belief system. You "behold your holiness made visible to you." You see that the child's holiness, so pure and immaculate, so far removed from your unholy ways, is actually yours. Could it be that, underneath your ego, you are every bit as holy as he? And could it be that he came simply to make visible your holiness, so that your eyes could look upon it and your unbelieving mind accept it?

In this view, the manger scene is not about worshipping the child. It is about seeing him as the concrete manifestation of what you really are. And this is a truly different way of looking upon Christmas. Think about all those Christmas carols that praise the infant Jesus. Are there any that depict him as a silent song of praise to us?

Imagine that you yourself are in the painting I just described. You are there in that dark stable, leaning over the manger, gazing on the infant's shining form in awe and wonder. Now, as you see the holy child before you, whisper to yourself, "This is my holiness made visible to me."

Your gifts are but your open hands, made clean
Of grasping.

What an odd idea: "Your gifts are but your open hands." How can empty hands be gifts? Your gifts are supposed to be what is in your hands. Empty hands are not a gift; they are the sign that you forgot to bring one. Your hands are supposed to be filled with something befitting a boy king, with gold or frankincense, or, at the very least, a little drum.

This child, however, has not come here to be praised or to have expensive gifts lavished upon him. He has come only to give. He wants nothing for himself. His only goal is to reveal to you your holiness. His only desire is to find himself reborn in you.

And what keeps you from being aware of his holiness within you? It is your grasping after the petty gifts of this world. In every grubby dollar or greasy doughnut or oily body you grab after, you affirm that you are a poor beggar, deprived of the riches of your Father's holy Presence in your heart.

Therefore, your gift to the child is your open hands, scrubbed clean of all the residue left by stroking the world's grimy treasures. So again, see yourself before the manger. Look at your hands and see in them a few of the things in your life that you have been clenching or grabbing at. Remember how little true happiness these things have brought you. Then think of the happiness that would be yours if this child was born in you. With that in mind, let these gifts drop from your hands. Now show the child your open hands. They are your gifts to him. They are the proof that nothing stands between you and the gifts this child has to offer you.

Nothing else you lay before
The newly-born except your doubts and fears,
Your pale illusions and your sickly pride,
Your hidden venom and your little love,
Your meager treasures and unfaithfulness
To all the gifts that God has given you.

This sentence is yet another twist on the traditional notion of laying gifts before the Christ child. First you brought him nothing but your empty hands. Now you lay before him a long list of the ugliest substances stored in the human mind. What kind of gifts are these? Why would the holy infant value such things? Because, again, he wants nothing for himself. He wants only your freedom, and these things are your shackles. Giving them to him means you have let yourself be free of them, and that is the only gift he wants from you.

This same thought is expressed in one of the Course's most ironic remarks about Christmas: "This Christmas give the Holy Spirit everything that would hurt you" (T-15.XI.3:1). What a strange perspective on what to give to God! Normally, we are meant to lavish gifts and praise on God. We are supposed to give to Him our most treasured things, for sacrificing to Him until it hurts shows Him how much we love Him. Here, however, He doesn't want our praise nor our treasures. He wants our darkest thoughts. Why? Because giving our darkness to Him means that we have let it go ourselves, and the only gift He wants is our freedom from its chains. Here at last, then, we have a God Who is truly egoless. Here at last we have a God Who wants neither praise nor sacrifice, but only our happiness. Here is a God Who wants not to be given to, only to give.

In this spirit, let us again imagine ourselves before the child in the manger. Let us first think about ways in which we have doubted the truth. Then, realizing that these doubts are chains around our mind, let us lay these chains down as gifts at the foot of the manger.

Now let us think about our fears, how ultimately unnecessary they have been, how good it would feel to be free of them. Let us see our fears as dark little quivering hunks of gelatin and lay these down before the manger.

Now let's think about our sickly pride, about how we have held our heads above others and considered ourselves too good to really join with them. Recognizing we would be happier if we united with them as true equals, let us lay down this tarnished crown as another gift.

Then let us think about our hidden venom, about all the vicious thoughts we have harbored behind our smiling facade, or voiced when backs were turned. Thinking about all the guilt and shame this venom has heaped on us, let us present our fangs as another priceless gift the child is happy to receive.

Let us think about our "love" which has been so limited, so dependent on conditions met, so contingent on pleasures received and whims obeyed. We no longer want this little love, for it has kept us from the real thing. So let us present it as a tiny shriveled heart to the Christ child.

Now let us remember the things we earlier let drop from our hands, the meager treasures our hands have grasped after. Let us pick these up from the ground where we dropped them, and make them too into gifts to the holy child, as an expression of our lack of desire for them.

Finally, let us think about the precious gifts that God has given us and how little we have truly appreciated their value, how little we have used them to the fullest. This is what the poem calls our "unfaithfulness to all the gifts that God has given" us. Let us see this as a cracked wedding ring and, renouncing our possession of it, make this our final gift to the Christ child.

Having laid all these gifts "before the newly-born," let us now realize that these ugly gifts are more precious to him than all the gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the entire world.

Now we come to the poem's final line:

Here at the altar lay all this aside
To let the door to Heaven open wide
And hear the angels sing of peace on earth,
For Christmas is the time of your rebirth.

As long as that pile of "gifts" remained inside of you, it blocked an ancient door from swinging open. Now, as you "lay all this aside," you experience what can only be called an epiphany. You see the door to Heaven open wide before you, welcoming you inside. Within its realm of light you hear the angels singing their eternal choruses. You hear "the trumpets of eternity resound throughout the stillness, yet disturb it not" (T-28.1.13:4). You pass into a state that is not of this world, yet which feels more like home than anything here ever has.

The angels singing of peace on earth, of course, is a reference to the angels announcing the birth of the Christ child to the shepherds. But this time it is different. This time they are not announcing the birth of the Christ as Jesus. And you are not one of the shepherds. They are announcing the birth of the Christ as you. You have seen in the infant Jesus "your holiness made visible to you." You have happily given away everything that prevented him from revealing to you your holiness. Now he has been reborn in you. Now you have become his holiness made visible to the world. Now you are the Christ child.

Having at last reached the end of the poem, we can see just how different this way of looking at Christmas is. We have traditionally thought that Christmas was about the baby Jesus, about paying him homage, giving him gifts, singing him songs, beating our drum for him. "O come let us adore him," we have sung time and again. Yet perhaps we have thereby missed the true meaning of Christmas. According to Helen's poem, Christmas is not about praising baby Jesus as a uniquely holy being and laying extravagant gifts at his feet. It is about seeing him as a visible symbol of our own holiness; an audible song of God's adoration of us. And it is about giving him all the darkness in us that keeps us from knowing our holiness. The following passage in the Course also expresses this new view of Christmas:

This is the season when you would celebrate my birth into the world. Yet you know not how to do it. Let the Holy Spirit teach you, and let me celebrate your birth through Him (T-15.X.1:5-7).

We have not known how to celebrate his birth. We failed to realize that he doesn't need our praise. He came to reveal our divinity. He wants to celebrate our birth.

How can we make Christmas holy? We can approach the manger in an entirely new way. We can come to it in true silence, empty of our past ideas of what Christmas is, void of our preconceptions of who we are, and cleansed of every petty thought. In this hallowed silence we can finally recognize what the Christ child has always wanted to show us.

The Christmas season will present us with countless opportunities to approach the manger in just this way. At this time of year we are virtually assaulted with reminders of Christmas, with commercials, Christmas lights, and holiday music, with shopping, decorating, and meal preparations. And as these reminders come to us, we often find our hands grasping after many meager treasures, and find our minds filled with fears and hidden venom. Imagine how the season might be transformed if every time we are reminded of Christmas, if every time we feel our hands clutching or our minds stressing, we visualize ourselves again before the manger and silently repeat these thoughts:

This child is my holiness made visible to me.
Let me give this child my empty hands and all my dark thoughts,
that I may know his holiness in me.
For Christmas is the time of my rebirth.

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