A couple of years ago, while sitting in the balcony of a church waiting for a concert to begin, I was pondering a mural of the Nativity that was painted on the back wall of the chancel.
In the painting Joseph and Mary were kneeling beside the infant Jesus who was lying in the manger. Nearby were a donkey and a cow, and off to the right the magi. But more than the figures themselves, it was the halos that caught my attention, halos that only appeared around the heads of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
“That’s exactly the problem,” I thought to myself. The mural, placed in the position of the holy of holies, was inadvertently broadcasting the very belief that has led to so much devastation and suffering on our planet: the belief that humans alone carry the divine light, and not just that, but only certain humans.
Christmas is the season in which Christians celebrate the Incarnation, the Divine breaking into our earthly existence, taking on human form and the fullness of human experience. Yet over the course of my life, as a result of my own spiritual explorations and experiences, I have come to believe that traditional Christian understandings of the Incarnation obscure its radical implications.
When I was a child I loved Christmas, and not only because of the gifts that accumulated under the tree, but because of the magic and mystery of the season, its wonder and its awe. I remember with deep fondness the experience of going to church with my family every Christmas Eve where we would sing carols and light candles and hear the stories of a great act of Love, of the Infinite taking on the form of a helpless baby born to peasant parents.
I still love Christmas. It is every bit as wondrous for me as it ever was. In fact, if anything its significance has expanded over the years, because for me Christmas is no longer about the birth of a solitary divine-human individual. It is a proclamation that the barrier between “heaven” and “earth” (a barrier which has ever only existed in our imaginations) is no more. Christmas, for me, invites us into the great truth of our oneness in and with the Source of all Being, in and with Love itself.
In other words, for me Christmas isn’t so much about Jesus as it is about all of us — about the beauty of our humanity, which Jesus revealed — and about Creation, all of Creation, being an expression of an infinitely loving, infinitely creative, infinitely forgiving Reality.
The meaning of Christmas has expanded for me because at this point in my life I no longer see Christ as an individual. I see Christ-ness as a state of being, one which Jesus embodied, which perceives the fundamental oneness of all things, one that sees through the illusion of separation and hierarchy that institutions of power are so fond of promoting and defending.
Back in that church, as I sat contemplating the painting of the Nativity I was well aware that there was a time when putting halos around the heads of a peasant family would have been a scandalous act, an affront to all the systems of power that sought to sequester the sacred in their own institutions and quarantine Christhood to a privileged, royal lineage.
But if I follow the trajectory of that radical act, that halo-scandal if you will, it is clear to me that in our day the needed affront to those same systems of power is in claiming that all people equally carry the divine light, as does the Earth herself and all of her life forms.
As I pondered that painting, I imagined what it would be like if the iconography in our places of worship asserted the sacredness of the entire cosmos, if churches hired artists to come in and transform the images, instructing them to paint halos on all the humans, all the donkeys, cows and sheep, all the trees, all the land.
Such a scandalous act would, I believe, come closer to communicating the earthshaking implications at the heart of Incarnation, that the tangible realm, the stuff of our everyday existence, is infused with the glory of the Eternal.
If humans really got that I have little doubt that we would be changed, in the twinkling of an eye. I believe we would live upon the Earth with more reverence, more humility, more wisdom, more dignity.
Christ-ness, in other words, would be born in us.