Opinion & Analysis
Why does the soul of India respond to Christmas?8:15 PM, December 19, 2018
India(Delhi):It appeals because it provides reassurance of an intimacy between God and human beings.
For about a decade, I ran something that I ventured to call the "Ministry to Parliamentarians". The annual highlight of its activities was a Christmas get-together. It used to evoke flatteringly good responses from lawmakers and ministers. Political personages of diverse hues used to react spontaneously to the spirit of Christmas.
On such occasions, I used to make the leaders talk about their views on Jesus Christ and their experiences of Christianity. The common refrain in their responses used to be, as the former president, Giani Zail Singh, said on one such occasion, Jesus is a challenging role-model for leaders, especially for parliamentarians.
Many of them emphasized the spirit of service that, thanks to Jesus Christ, the Christian community exemplified. Some of them even connected Jesus' servant-leader model to the caring culture of the Christian community
A. Rao, a sturdy scholar alike in English literature and Hinduism and my colleague in New Delhi's St. Stephen's College, used to wonder with me; "Among the founders of religions, it is Jesus who appeals to me most, though I can't tell why."
Swami Vivekananda maintains that the mystery of Jesus cannot be explained in terms of spiritual evolution. Millennia of evolution — each generation taking up from where its predecessor left off — cannot lead to the emergence of a Christ. It has to be a vertical inruption or breaking in of God into human destiny.
Karan Singh, an ardent follower of Indian evolutionist philosopher Sri Aurobindo, held the belief that Christ visited and lived in Kashmir, which is commemorated by the Rozabal Tomb. This is not the place for me to undertake a full-length account of this folklore. It suffices for our purpose to merely mention that the people of India experience a special affinity to Christ.
It is widely known that there are tens and thousands of crypto Christians — non-Christians who cherish their faith in Jesus Christ, without anyone ever trying to evangelize them.
It is farthest from my intent to argue the superiority or inferiority of religions and their founders. My business here is a simple and factual one: to flag the fact that Jesus has spoken, and continues to speak, to the soul of India. What could be the reason for it?
The answer is writ large over the Christmas Event. Its most significant feature is the conspicuous absence of everything explicitly religious and ritualistic.
The Christmas Event is situated in the barest ingredients of life. A newborn baby. A woman in pain. A man in bewilderment. An inn, shut tight against human need. A cattle-shed. Shepherds. A star in the sky. Three wise men, come from a distance. Some angels singing, of all people, to shepherds!
Why poetry, not prose, should be the medium of this communication is a mystery. But poetry, as Blaise Pascal said, antedates prose. Poetry is the medium of humankind's infancy.
At the heart of Christmas is a universal insight. What human beings need is not religion, but God. Religion gets overrun by rituals, traditions and customs. It becomes progressively blind to the human predicament. God's core concern is for the individual.
Jesus is God revealed as person-specific love. As the Bible says, "God knows you by your name." Not only that. "He has seen you from your mother's womb". He invites you to abide in him; and he wishes to abide in you. Christmas inaugurates a reassuring state of intimacy between God and human beings.
This intimacy between God and human beings, inaugurated through the birth of Jesus, has several implications, of which we can consider only a few. It supersedes religious, cultural and social stereotypes. Stereotypes are convenient crutches: they help and hinder at the same time.
They help within the confines of the status quo; hinder progressing to the not-yet. The Bible reveals God as a continual exhortation to perfection and fullness of life. Freedom is the matrix for attaining this transformed life. The thirst for the new is universal.
In the secular context, this is experienced as a longing for change. Change is a shift from the given, but often stops short of the new. Alienated from God, human beings are condemned to the plight of Sisyphus — strenuous efforts continually falling short. This is similar to our plight in electoral politics. Our freedom of choice is limited to voting out parties. Change in government does not amount to change in governance. The new is desperately like the old.
Secondly, God-human intimacy redeems the interpersonal space. There is a good reason why Jesus was born in a cattle shed and not in a palace. Jesus represents the counter-paradigm predicated on the greatness of serving, rather than in being served. The chasm that no political philosophy or model of government known hitherto has been able to bridge lies between serving and being served.
The political good news in the Christmas Event is that good governance is indeed possible. But, for that to become real, rulers have to be servants, not just in words, but in spirit and in truth. For rulers to be servants, they have to be ruled by God, the God of love. In Christmas, God as love takes on the form of a servant.
The universality of Christmas, which speaks to the Indian soul, stems from what is missing from the jigsaw puzzle of life. The global famine is the famine of love. Love is in exile because its rival, paradigm power, has usurped it. The Christmas Event is an implicit rejection of power as the shaping principle of life.
In Christmas, God becomes a neighbor to humankind. Not as an abstract idea but in flesh and blood. Of all blessings in this world, the rarest is a loving, enduring neighbor. An African proverb has it that a neighbor is more precious than a blood-brother at a distance.
Our world teems with strangers. Every effort is being made to infect us with stranger-anxiety in the name of nationality. It is no small matter that a stranger is suddenly revealed to be a neighbor! It signals the sunrise of godliness.
The proof that God is in our midst is not that there are imposing temples and churches, but that strangers are transformed into neighbors; and neighbors into sisters and brothers. Christmas is, therefore, a festival of the neighbor — a sort of godly Diwali or festival of lights, in which we light up life as neighbors to each other.
Reverend Valson Thampu belongs to the Protestant Church of South India. He was English professor and principal of New Delhi's St. Stephen's College.
© Ucan India 2019. All rights reserved.