In his poem, “The Mystic’s Christmas,” John Greenleaf Whittier describes a group of monks who are taken aback by the refusal of one of their brothers to join them in their Christmas revels. He sits apart, quietly, with a look of sweet peace upon his face.
"Why sitt'st thou thus?" his brethren cried,
"It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.
. . .
"Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look."
The gray monk answered, "Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord's birthday.
The gray monk in no way wishes to undermine the joy of his dancing brothers, nor diminish the importance of their sacred celebration. There was a time when he too, found deep meaning in the observance of Christmas as a special day and enjoins them to keep the feast. Yet, he says, through God’s exceeding grace we can transcend the mere forms of religion to attain a deeper truth and joy.
"The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!
"Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!"
The grey monk of Whittier’s poem echoes the teaching of the mystic, St. John of the Cross, who said, “The soul of one who loves God always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, and is always in the mood for singing.” This is quite a statement from this Spanish mystic best known for his teaching about the dark night of the soul! St. John of the Cross is no Pollyanna, yet it was his experience that a deep and abiding joy is the fruit of spiritual awakening: every day is Christmas for those in whom Christ is born.
Our Christmas celebration is meaningless if it does not serve to awaken us to the birth of Christ in our own souls, to the fullness of life and love for which we have been created. This is God’s desire for us, and it is our deepest desire as well. Christmas is not only about the birth of Jesus back then and there. It is also about the realization of our true selves, Christ in us, here and now. Christmas reminds us of who we are, of all we can become. It is easy to forget.
To borrow an analogy from Rabbi Sharon Brous, consider the importance of wedding anniversaries. As a priest, it is a great privilege for me to help a couple celebrate the holy love they share and to declare it blessed. Holy Matrimony is a wonderful celebration. It is an intense, sacramental experience.
Consider, however, from your own experience, or try to imagine with me, the difference between the intensity of the experience of the wedding day and say, the sixth or seventh anniversary. By the 16th or 17th anniversary, God willing you should make it that long, you are lucky to remember what day it is when you wake up that morning, and scramble to make a restaurant reservation or hope you can get a card before your beloved springs one on you (or, better yet, hope you aren’t the only one who forgot). I wasn’t so lucky. I forgot our 7th anniversary, and my husband has never let me forget that I forgot!
As Rabbi Brous explains it, “religious ritual and rites were essentially designed to serve the function of the anniversary, to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place. The problem is that after a few centuries, the date remains on the calendar, but the love affair is long dead. That's when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don't mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that's completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that's the way things have always been done.”
Christmas, like a wedding anniversary, is a reminder to keep love alive, not just on Christmas day, not just on the anniversary, but every day: it is a reminder of who we are and of the commitment that love demands of us. It is an invitation to live in the joy that we can only experience through the sometimes painful, but ultimately life-giving, commitment to love: not just love of our spouse or of a friend but of God, and of all things in God.
A religion, like a marriage, becomes stale when the celebration of its anniversary becomes an exercise in nostalgia, reducing love to mere sentimentality. It becomes routine, lifeless, and, yes, boring; completely disconnected from present reality and the risks and vulnerability of real love. That is one of the ways that religion goes wrong.
Another way religion goes wrong is when it becomes extremist, all about domination and control, a form of domestic and even civic violence. It is used to justify regressive and exploitative politics and policies, using sacred texts to legitimate hatred and violence in God’s name. Such religion is an exercise in cultivating fear rather than love. As Rabbi Brous notes, “Religion today has failed to capture the imagination of millions who are repelled by the viciousness of extremism and disenchanted by the dullness of routine-ism. They refuse to choose between religion that’s deadly and religion that is dead.”
The purpose of religion is not to numb us into complacency or force us into compliance. It is misused whenever it serves as a form of escapism – “thoughts and prayers religion” – as in “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the mass shooting” but we aren’t going to do anything about the fetishizing of guns in America; or “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the hurricanes” but we refuse to acknowledge the reality of global climate change much less enact policies to mitigate its effects. Religion is equally misused when it serves as a form of social control, serving as chaplain to the empire and its idolatry of blood and soil.
Authentic religion is always an invitation to wake-up and a threat to empire. Christmas is not a bucolic, sentimental story about sweet baby Jesus, meek and mild. It is a subversive claim that God is found, not at the center of empire, but in the resistance. It is a subversive claim that divine power is not exercised through violent domination, but through revolutionary love. It is a subversive claim that salvation does not come down from above, in the form of noblesse oblige, but wells up from below, in the form of a community of nobodies from nowhere who turn the world upside-down. The story of the birth of Jesus delegitimizes the official story, and offers an alternative version of religion as the practice of becoming human, fully alive and breathtakingly free.
In a healthy marriage, anniversaries are celebrated as a joyous recognition of the way love challenges us to change and grow, and discover that the meaning of our life is found in community and in service to others. Through it, we come to accept our vulnerability as a gift, a means of connection, and honor the vulnerability of our beloved. We learn to let go of our ego, die to our self-image, so that we can see more clearly and love more deeply, selflessly, and unconditionally, so that we can become mutual agents of our beloved’s healing. We accept pain in the service of growth, rather than trying to avoid or control reality. We give ourselves away, and thereby receive all things in return.
Well, Christmas is the anniversary of our love affair with God, who comes to us in the form of a child and says to us, in the words of another mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg, “I, God, am your playmate! I will lead the child in you in wonderful ways for I have chosen you.” The world is our playground, and God invites us to enjoy it. Yes, you can get hurt on the playground. It can be a little dangerous. But the risk of love is worth the joy of playing together. When we realize this deep in our soul, beyond our illusions and our fears and our false ideas about religion, then we can say with St. John of the Cross, “The soul of one who loves God always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, and is always in the mood for singing.” When Christ is born in us, then every day is Christmas. Amen.
 Quoted in The Living Pulpit (October-December, 1996), p. 30.
 Rabbi Sharon Brous, “It’s time to reclaim religion,” TED conference talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/sharon_brous_it_s_time_to_reclaim_and_reinvent_religion.
 Rabbi Sharon Brous, “I need you to breath,” keynote address at PICO Prophetic Resistance Summit, October 23, 2017 at http://ikar-la.org/wp-content/uploads/PICO-Prophetic-Resistance-Keynote.pdf.
 Quoted in The Living Pulpit (October-December, 1996), p. 30.