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Letters from Downunder

A time for deeds, a time for celebration

Submitted by Lindsay, Melbourne Australia!

Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbours. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin. (Ambrose Bierce, 'The Devil's dictionary'.)

(12/11) If there's any one event in the Christian world that is held above any other it is that of Christmas.

It matters not a bit that the date is incorrect, the manger story is just a story, or that many of the events surrounding the day have been drawn from other cultures and histories. What matters to Christians is that the babe that was born that day means more to them than any other, that the words that have come down to us through many filters and selections hold a message of timeless hope, goodwill and comfort.

Many nations across the world are called Christian. The schisms and divisions within the kaleidoscope of interpretations and practices that have evolved over two thousand years have not altered the heritage of that birth in Bethlehem. The heritage that has brought us a message of love, of charity, of goodwill, forgiveness and tolerance, of service, humility and morality, and of peace, harmony and joy.

Yet what has come down to us is far more than that - and some of it is decidedly difficult, if not impossible, for us to embrace. But, as I understand things, to be a Christian is to accept the words attributed to Jesus as divine - and if we ignore the words and teachings that don't suit, while embracing those that do, it is at least sacrilegious, and very probably heretical.

So is it possible to parade one's Christianity and ignore things like, 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.'? There are so many laws (and lawyers) because we do not practice this bit of one of the most revered recitations of all time, The Lord's Prayer.

Can a nation be called Christian if it not only ignores this, but flouts it as a matter of course? Even if this prayer is repeated daily in schools, parliaments and churches? Reciting words does not make beliefs, beliefs do not make rules, and rules do not make the deeds we do.

How about, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’’? (Matt. 22 v 38) Really? How many Christians practice this? Jesus might forgive us our sins, but surely not if his words are flouted. This, strangely, is the nub of the story:

Christians keep Christ's laws, right? Well, no, not really. The teachings that come down to us, ascribed to him and forming the basis of Christianity, have been in fact been selectively excised. Only the bits that suit the current mores are used, the rest quietly hidden away because they are no longer acceptable. To this has been added an enormous number of rules, the so-called 'received wisdom' of the scholars down the ages, with such ideas often being adhered to more rigidly than the reported words of Jesus and his disciples. What has resulted is a manifesto of bigotry, a self-serving litany of obfuscation, tradition, status quo - and a marvelous paean of praise to human nature.

For that is what religion is truly about: Human nature. Mankind has grown up needing to believe in something, and the idea that this had to be outside ourselves took hold very early in our development. Rocks, animals, birds, stars, the sun, Olympus, ancestors - all these and more have been worshipped reverently and with fierce and bloody loyalty through the ages, only to have them supplanted by other beliefs with better fire-power or more colourful stories to tell.

Mankind has a yen for the unknowable, a craving for the sublime, a hope for something beyond ourselves, and gods and Gods have been the answer for all of our existence. Man-made rules, ascribed to the gods, have been the usual way of giving the priests a stranglehold about the populace's neck, but Jesus' message is the only one with love at its core - and this is its real strength. Real love is absent from all other religions, including that espoused in the Old Testament. I do not mean 'Thou shalt love the lord thy god with all thy heart and soul,' for that is something that it is impossible in any real sense, and far removed from that most wonderful of human traits, the melding of two human minds and hearts.

So the Christmas story is wonderful, as it appeals to the way we are - humans who love babies, who normally hate oppression, mayhem and death, who respect the law, and are willing to help the helpless and comfort the sick and dying - which is surely the Christmas part of God's message. But the rest? Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, give all your possessions to the poor, and so on? Forget it. We're just not made that way. Christianity, in that picture, could not be our way of life, and thus we should not brag about our holiness or call ourselves Christian. Our neighbours can do that, as Ambrose Bierce, quoted above, pertinently and slyly puts it.

For, in the end, it is by our deeds we are known - not our words, professions of faith, or church attendance. Rejoice and be glad in the Christ Child, and have a wonderful, human, loving Christmas.


From Down Under.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker