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Hanukkah and Christmas: a spiritual interpretation

By Roger S. Gottlieb

Ahhh… the joys of the holiday season in America! A frightening degree of crass commercialism, public rages about the ‘war on Christmas,’ emotionally draining family events, or a soul-graying loneliness when you have no place to go. Food in abundance, but often consumed with a sense that it’s way off of one’s (more healthy) diet; or perhaps a nagging guilt that we in the middle/upper classes have so much more than the approximately 1 billion people who lack access to clean water, adequate food, and health services. We might notice that it is, again, “warmer than usual” — even though ‘warmer than usual’ is the new usual. Overall, there’s the unrelenting message that, of all things, we are supposed to be happy — a more effective recipe for discontent bordering on depression might not be easy to find.

Even though as a Jew some of this doesn’t touch me, a good deal does: from the spectacle to the parties to the social pressure about my mood.

Is there an answer to this? A way out? Well, the major claim of spirituality — defined simply as the attempt to be mindful, accepting, grateful, compassionate, and loving — is that the more one lives by these virtues the better one feels. Spirituality offers a sure path to long-lasting, non-addictive, non-destructive peace of mind, and makes you a lot more fun to be around as well. How would it work this season?

To begin, there are certain quite effective spiritual responses: gratitude for what we do have even if it’s not ideal, compassion on our troublesome family members, tolerance for the consumerist foibles of others and ourselves.

But there’s something else to try as well. What if we read the actual stories that are the basis of both Christmas and Hanukkah from a spiritual perspective? What if we put aside the hoopla, big sales, and parties graced by altogether too much alcohol and asked ourselves if these narratives contain a deep, significant, and quite personal meaning?

One way to read the great religious myths spiritually is to internalize them, understanding the different actors and narratives as aspects of our own selves and our own experience of the world.

Understood this way, what do the birth of Jesus and the Israelite victory over the Syrian Greek occupiers and their own assimilationists have to teach us?

On the most immediate level, there is the simple joy of birth and of rebirth. Taken as a reflection of our own lives, this indicates the permanent possibility that something new and wondrous is always possible. No matter how “poor” (in whatever sense) we are, even if we have to sleep in the stable or our traditions are being erased in favor of new gods, tomorrow a fundamental change for the better may come. In a kind of miracle, reality fundamentally shifts. This may come from the powers of nature as a birth. It may come from a seemingly impossible victory of a marginalized group over an unquestionably more powerful force. But if we stay tuned into the reality of our lives, if we do not turn our back on the permanent chance of transformation, we can trust that what we face now may not last.

As participants in the change, whose courage helps bring it about, and as witnesses to processes such as birth, which draw on mysteries beyond our comprehension, we surely live in a more blessed universe if we are able recognize that such events, even the darkest of times, remain possible. It is not an irrational faith, but realism more powerful than despair, which tells us that we do not know what the future will bring.

In the spiritual appropriation of sacred texts there is always a deeper — and often a darker and more difficult — level. Let us remember that we read the familiar stories of Jesus’ birth and the triumph of the Maccabees against a knowledge of what happens later. Jesus is crucified; the Temple, re-sanctified by Jewish rebels, is a few centuries later destroyed by the Romans. There is a birth, yes, but the birth gives way to a brutal execution; a rebirth to a 2000 year exile.

In this sequence we find the ultimate truth that all mortal realities — each child born, each ethnic tradition preserved or reconstituted — is at best limited and temporary. As persons we are born to die. As humans we are part of cultural groups which are just as mortal.

Each new beginning presages another ending; each joy, a loss. Yet paradoxically, only in the finitude of what we have is the reality of human life truly experienced. And only in that experience is an authentic spiritual joy possible without energy sapping denial, suppression of the truth of mortality, or a necessarily self-destructive clinging to that which inevitably fades.

Have a happy holiday? For sure! But happiness not based in the ego’s attachment to toys, sensual pleasures, or cultural identity. It is, rather, happiness rooted in the simple but spectacular truth that to be here, even for our brief time, is a miracle. As much a miracle as the birth of a Someone who would forgive us our sins, or the triumph of the oppressed over their rulers.

We too can be born, we too can rise up against the parts of ourselves that are oppressive, or the irrational social powers that surround us. We can do it knowing that eventually we will die, and that in all probability oppression will follow any liberation we experience or create, only to make room, hopefully, for more liberation in a cycle that is the analogue of any ecosystem.

If this is a purely earthly spirituality, if heaven and immortal life and the resurrection of the body don’t figure here, well, that is the only kind I personally understand.

Take it for what it’s worth. And have blessed holiday season.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, author of editor of seventeen books on religion, environmentalism, ethics, and political theory, and internet presence on Huffington, Patheos, and Tikkun Daily. His new book, Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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Image credit: Christmas shopping xwoman stress. Photo by Maridav, iStockphoto.

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