Christmas Kaleidoscope by Karl Jechotek

Christmas Kaleidoscope by Karl Jechotek


Let your mind wander to an obscure corner of a multi-faith empire two thousand years ago – an empire based on an official pantheon of gods with a long Hellenistic pedigree, but amenable to tolerating many religions and cults as long as they did not interfere with the efficient running of the government.

A boy is born to a Jewish couple, and is picked out by Zoroastrian astrologers, ‘magi’ from Persia, as somebody special. He grows up in a hybrid Jewish-Galilean environment where influences of many Middle Eastern cultures and religions cross paths.

As he matures, he joins the ranks of the itinerant preachers who add colour to the religious ferment of Jewish Palestine. His message inspires his followers to strike out on a spiritual path of their own, gaining him respect as an original Jewish prophetic voice.

After his death, he gradually becomes the divine central figure of the newly established religion of Christianity, the story buttressed by a carefully negotiated canon of scripture. His birth date is set to coincide with pre-Christian festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia, to stress his importance. He remains a major prophet of another emerging religion, Islam, a few centuries later, his mother Mary also being accorded special status in the Qu’ran.

Do we recognise the Christmas story in this narrative? Of course we do, but we are looking at it through the lens of several religions at once. As we do this, we realise that the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is a key feature in the religions originating in the Middle East. Christianity sees him as divine and human at once, the son of God incarnate, the central founder of the religion, first through his message of how to lead a good life, then through the narrative of his life, death and resurrection. For Judaism, he is an important catalyst who still influences Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber. Islam considers him a key prophet in the chain of divinely inspired authorities from Abraham to Muhammad, and he continues to inform the Muslim mysticism of the Sufis.

Indeed, the Christmas story is not just owned by Christians. It is the hinge that can hold together faiths that do not always see eye to eye. The Christian narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus may grate on Jewish and Muslim interlocutors who do not subscribe to the notion of his divinity. But the importance of Jesus’ birth and teaching is something that all three faiths can find common ground on.

It is a message of unselfishness, love of neighbour, and active support for others in need. It is a call for humility, forgiveness and doing the unexpected. Above all, it is the unalloyed respect for God’s will. In short, it is the moral code of conduct that the three religions stand for.

Is this too little for an interfaith conversation? I think not. On the contrary, it is a rich source for discussion, and for learning from each other. The Christmas story celebrates much more that the birth of a key personality. It encompasses the importance of Jesus’ teaching, which was based on ancient Jewish thought, has found its way into the early versions of the gospels, and into much of Muslim principles of living righteously. It leads believers to see God’s presence in all things. All three Abrahamic faiths would agree with William Blake (‘Auguries of Innocence’):

 

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.