Advent begins today! We start a four-week journey into Christmas. Today we will light our first Advent candle. Each Sunday we will light one more candle than the week before as we prepare ourselves for the birth of the Christ child within us. Our Advent wreath is round, without beginning or end, to represent the completeness that we have in Christ, in us
We can all recall, when a younger brother or sister enters a family, the older sibling has some adjustments to make. Here’s a story of a 3 year old and her frustration with her little brother who was at that age of getting into everything.
She asked, “Mommy, can we put him back, now?”
Deciding to take this opportunity as a teaching moment in how siblings should treat each other, the Mother explained to her daughter that, no, we could not put him back that her brother was a gift from God.
The little girl looked up at her Mother with her big blue eyes and responded, “I understand, Mommy. God didn’t want him either.”
THE TRIP TO BETHLEHEM –
A Metaphysical Journey
Part 1: “Preparation”
Under a cultural-exchange program, a Christian family was host to a rabbi from Russia at Christmastime. The family wanted to introduce him to a culinary treat that probably was not available in his homeland, so they took him to their favorite Chinese restaurant.
Throughout the meal, the rabbi spoke about the wonders of the United States, especially as compared to the bleak conditions in his country. When the meal was over, the waiter brought the check and gave each one of the diners a small brass Christmas-tree ornament as a seasonal gift
Everyone laughed when they discovered that the ornaments were stamped “Made in India.” But the laughter subsided when the family members noticed that the rabbi was quietly crying.
They asked the rabbi if he had been offended because he had been given a gift for a Christian holiday.
He smiled, shook his head, and said, “Nyet. I was shedding tears of joy to be in a wonderful country in which a Buddhist gives a Jew a Christmas gift made by a Hindu!”
Interesting story. I think it typifies the spirit of Christmas and Unity’s philosophies. This is the first of four talks we will share as we begin our metaphysical journey to Christmas – our journey to Bethlehem.
The next four weeks will be a metaphysical “Adventure” as we look at the Christmas story from a different perspective than the one you might be used to. As we travel on this journey, we’re going to explore the origins of the traditional Christmas story – and we’re going to look much deeper. We’re going to consider what the story means to us – how it plays out in our lives today, some 2,000 years after it happened.
Some things we meet on our trip to Bethlehem may shake us up a little. We’ll look at some of the myths and archetypes that surround the story. We’ll try to sort out the facts versus the Truth of the story. We’ll talk about metaphysics and mysticism. And we’ll try to understand what the story means to each of us, both physically and metaphysically.
Today’s talk is called “The Preparation,” because if we’re going to take this four-week journey, we need to decide what to take with us. What are we going to need on this trip?
Let’s consider what we’ll put in our backpack, or suitcase; whichever we choose to use.
The first thing we’ll want is a good understanding of the traditional story. For this entire trip, we’ll be looking at a book by the late Hypatia Hasbrouck, a Unity minister. The book is called The Trip to Bethlehem.
The basic assumption of the book – and of our trip – is that the traditional Christmas story is based on the fact that Jesus actually lived. In Unity, we believe there was such a person; that he did, indeed, walk this earth. There are some folks who question this, and that’s fine. Maybe someday we will look at that!
We also believe that the story of this remarkable man also foretells metaphysically another fact – we can do as Jesus did and express our Higher Self as we travel our life-long journey on earth.
Was Jesus born of a virgin in a manger?
Did a star pause over the manger to illuminate the birth?
Did angels appear to shepherds in the nearby hills to herald the birth?
Did three wise men come from the East to give gifts to the newborn babe?
Here’s the real question about all this…. How many of those details matter to you?
We’ll look at some of these questions as this journey unfolds over the four weeks, so keep these questions, and any others you may have in mind.
The second item we’ll need to carry with us is a good understanding of metaphysics and mysticism.
More on that later…
Third, we’ll want to take with us an understanding of the difference between facts and Truth, and the knowledge of myths and archetypes. We’ll get to those a little later in this series.
Finally, we’ll need to pack Faith and Prayer, because those two spiritual qualities will be absolutely necessary for us to fully understand all the twists and turns of the journey.
OK, let’s set out. . .
The real Christmas story is the story that lives within each one of us. It combines elements of the accounts in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke with details added in the first couple of centuries of the Christian era – and with personal tradition that plays out through music, food, family gatherings, Christmas trees and lights, visits to Santa, gifts on Christmas morning, and all the other little quirks that make Christmas what it is to you and to me.
In my family, I remember Christmas Eve meant going to my grandparents’ house – my mother’s parents. There was plenty of Italian food and all my aunts, uncles and cousins were there. Now there were 9 children in my Mother’s family so, the small house was packed, but it was usually fun, and the food was amazing.
And then came Christmas morning and seeing the presents. I’m sure every family has its Christmas morning ritual. We opened gifts and had breakfast, then we went to visit my Father’s side of the family…yes it was large too. The big decision of the day was what one gift were you taking along on the visit?
I would guess that each one of you here this morning has a favorite Christmas memory. And it’s a wonderful thing to enjoy the good memories we hold dear.
The point is, we all have imbedded in us a Christmas story. Hypatia Hasbrouck writes, “Each year, the traditional Christmas story. . .stirs all of us because the Christ Child represents the higher Self, the true Self, of everyone. . .
“We know that at some time we are destined to take the mystical trip to our own inner Bethlehem, the birthplace of our own higher Self.”
The traditional Christmas story has at least two meanings: the literal and the metaphysical. The literal meaning is journalistic – the who, what, where, when, why and how.
The metaphysical meaning, which is what we’re going to concentrate on during this journey, has to do with our consciousness, on a psychological and spiritual level. Everything in the story symbolizes something that exists or can exist within the consciousness of each of us.
Here’s an example of the difference: on the literal level, the Christmas story recounts a bunch of miraculous events that lead to the birth of Jesus – the person who was fully human at birth and later remembered his full divinity.
On the metaphysical level, the story invites us on a mystical journey within where we can find both our full humanity and full divinity. At the end of this journey, we fully discover the human part of us – and also the spiritual part of us that is undergoing this human experience. Like Jesus we, too, are both human and divine.
Unlike him, though, many of us don’t understand the divine part – or even acknowledge it as part of us. That’s because God gave us humans a great gift – the gift of free will. We can choose to express our spiritual nature – or we can ignore it. If we choose the spiritual journey, we will find the place in consciousness where the Christ comes alive in us. If we do not, then we simply “sleepwalk” through our lifetime on this planet.
To sum up, the deeper meaning of the Christmas story has many elements – the accounts in the Bible, the reports added later, the traditions we each grew up with, our willingness to explore the spiritual path.
The word “mystical” was used in the quotation I read a moment ago, and I think it’s appropriate for our journey that we examine that word a little more closely.
“Mystical” does not mean the same thing as “mysterious,” even though the dictionary does list “mysterious” as a synonym. But in Unity, we understand mysticism as a direct, one-on-one connection with Spirit, or the practice of the Presence of God.
Once you have had that experience, there is nothing mysterious about it. It becomes a way of life for those of us who meditate or contemplate, for example. So when we refer to mysticism, we mean those experiences that we have when we are in direct touch with Spirit through whatever spiritual practice we use.
All religions have a mystical aspect, though most Western religions stress ritual, doctrine and dogma. Those of us in Unity, however, rely much more on mysticism and intuition.
Let’s take a moment or two now to look at the literal story of the birth of Jesus. After all, it’s the first thing we must take with us.
The birth story appears in only two of the four Gospels – Luke and Matthew. The writer of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, did not include a birth story. That Gospel begins with the ministry of John the Baptist.
The writer of John also does not cover the birth of Jesus, although certainly John knew about the story, because his Gospel was written later than the other three.
The Gospel of Luke contains the earliest version of the birth story. Scholars believe it was written between 80 and 85 CE (Common Era) – more than 50 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Matthew’s version, scholars believe, was written about 90 CE. The two differ significantly. Experts think the two stories were written to explain how such a person as Jesus could have existed. It’s also likely that an ordinary birth story would just not do for someone with the reputation of Jesus. In other words, a “miracle birth” was required, similar to that of Moses and other Old Testament heroes.
So isn’t it possible that the followers of Jesus reached back into antiquity and pulled out some of the myths about gods and goddesses to apply to his birth? We touched on this when we discussed the Pagan origins of Halloween earlier this year.
And think about the star that moved across the night sky and then stopped over the place where Jesus was born. That event has echoes of the “pillar of fire” that helped lead Moses and the Hebrews through the desert to the Promised Land.
What time of year was Jesus born? Matthew doesn’t say, but Luke’s version of the shepherds in the fields with their flocks indicates almost any time except winter. So how did we get Dec. 25?
Again, we reach back into antiquity for a possible answer. First, the winter solstice, which takes place in late December, celebrates the time when days begin to grow longer, rather than shorter. Think of the triumph of light over darkness, if you want a convenient symbol.
Also, Dec. 25 was the birthday of Mithra, a Persian savior who was worshipped as the incarnation of eternal light. Oddly enough, the wise men, or Magi, came from the East, according to Matthew. Persia is to the East of Bethlehem. (By the way, the Bible does not say there were three wise men – we infer that because there were three gifts.)
So how much of the story is fact? More importantly, how much is Truth, with a capital “T?” Each of the Gospel accounts almost certainly is incomplete. But blended together, along with the additions and traditions that have been incorporated since then, the two form a story that points to the Truth.
This Truth becomes a guide for transformation, a spiritual map for our trip to Bethlehem. We must take this map with us on our journey, or we risk losing our way.
The map, however, is not the territory. We cannot ascertain the historical accuracy of this story – but we can discover the spiritual Truth for ourselves. This sacred story invites us to be transformed by participating in the spiritual process of rebirth – a process that can happen for us every year at this time.
Medieval monk Angelius Silesius, who lived from 1624-1677, reminded us of this opportunity when he wrote, “Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, if he is not born in thee, thy soul is still forlorn.”
That’s the bottom line: if the Christ consciousness is not reborn in us at this time of year, we miss the entire meaning of Christmas. So I invite you to continue on our journey to Bethlehem throughout this season of Advent.
Our Adventure next week addresses this question: “Where Are We Going?” We’ll continue the journey inward as we consider the metaphysical meaning of the theme, the time, the place, the people – and yes, even the animals in this story. See you there!