The traditional Christian narrative of the event of the birth of Jesus now is one among the many 'niche combinations' that inspire Christmas as a global season of celebration. For many, Christmas has become more of an occasion for event marketing for the jaunty consumers who live by 'frog- jumping' from one 'festival consumption' to the next.
However, the spirit and message of Christmas keeps on uniting us by touching upon the core of the promise of life. The babe Jesus born in a stable in the company of cattle presents us feelers to know what it is to be ultimately in company with nature, the divine, the other and oneself. The divine child was a poor refugee and the enemy of the ruler of the land. He was an object of worship for scholars who came in search of him from distant lands and the poor shepherds around too. He was an unassuming friend of the cattle. And of course, son and everything to Joseph (if one wants translate the mystery of virgin birth into modern theoretical terminology, Father, when he is not a father - the proto figure of 'identity-less' male sex/sexual biology) and Mary (Mother, when she is a virgin - the proto figure of unidentifiable female gender). In other words, Christmas as the birth of Jesus is the fellowship of all what he is and all whom adore, worship and be with him. The history of Christianity is in being closer or going distant from this fellowship. The leading lamp of Christianity is in the ultimate hope of raising this fellowship to as transparent as a principle that can take life to a realm in which it is permanent. Then, life as the fellowship should be the final entity, not death.
But, just as the search for the divine refugee in the manger, the search for his fellowship too was hard and often as painful as death. As T.S Eliot says in 'The Journey of the Magi',
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; the Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
And when once one makes his visit to the Christmas babe and his fellowship, it is so demanding that one has to go beyond life and death. For, life and death also become prior to the Christmas fellowship, which allows no return,
We retuned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The fellowship of Christmas is at the risk of all gods who are against the fellowship of life.
Christmas caught between two stories
Christmas reminds us where do we stand as a civilization. Let us look at Christmas through one of the best short stories ever written, which has captured the spirit of the Christmas fellowship. Noted Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekov's Vanka.
VANKA ZHUKOV, a boy of nine, who had been for three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, was sitting up on Christmas Eve. Waiting till his master and mistress and their workmen had gone to the midnight service, he took out of his master's cupboard a bottle of ink and a pen with a rusty nib, and, spreading out a crumpled sheet of paper in front of him, began writing' to his grandfather, ' "Dear grandfather, Konstantin Makaritch,", "I am writing you a letter. I wish you a happy Christmas, and all blessings from God Almighty. I have neither father nor mother, you are the only one left me.Vanka not only represents the helpless childhood that denied its rights but also remains as the prototype of all who are insulted and humiliated.
Vanka sighed, dipped his pen, and went on writing: Dear grandfather, show the divine mercy, take me away from here, home to the village. It's more than I can bear. I bow down to your feet, and will pray to God for you for ever, take me away from here or I shall die.When Vanka wails of the reality of loveless ness around him, he makes it about the homelessness within us too.
For Christ's sake, I beg you, take me away. Have pity on an unhappy orphan like me; here everyone knocks me about, and I am fearfully hungry; I can't tell you what misery it is, I am always crying. And the other day the master hit me on the head with a last, so that I fell down. My life is wretched, worse than any dog's.Vanka curses not only the faceless cruelty around him but also the civilizational contempt for life.
After thinking a little, he dipped the pen and wrote the address: To grandfather in the village. Then he scratched his head, thought a little, and added: Konstantin Makaritch. Glad that he had not been prevented from writing, he put on his cap and, without putting on his little greatcoat, ran out into the street as he was in his shirt. . . . An hour later, lulled by sweet hopes, he was sound asleep. . . .The insufficiently addressed Vanka's letter is not just his own, it is ours too, as we sigh our endless misery and wretchedness and search for an existential answer from the divine, the cosmic beyond. The letter of Vanka becomes our search for God. As we grow as a civilization (many cultures, but technologically one civilization), we search for life in its mechanical perfection: We seek from life in our efforts to define it. In an all time classic short novel “The Death of Ivan Illyich”, Leo Tolstoy· traces how this febrile race after the mechanical perfection of life ends up in the debility of its very purpose.
Ivan Illyich's story shows that how the urbanized bourgeois's life and ambitions get lost in a self-forgetfulness that alienates and pushes the individual into dehumanizing absurdity and hypocrisy. Ivan Illyich, the central character of the novel was an upper middle class, educated, well - positioned man - a member of judicial council- who all through his life never cared to reflect on his existence as something different from his career, ambitions and the habits that are imposed on him from outside. He was exceedingly reserved, official in his matters and strict but as it is said in the novel, he was perfectly flexible.
There were services rendered to his chief and even to the wife of his chief. But all of this was done in a tone of such elevated good breeding that it could hardly be called by a bad name. …: it was done with clean hands, in a clean shirt, with French words, and what was most important, in high society, which meant with the approval of those in high position.Adjustability, the sign of maturity, which is what the mechanical life expects from a man conformed to the system, was liberally there in Ivan Illyich.
He cleverly selected friends from the upper class and law circles or wealthy gentry, and adopted a tone of moderate liberalism and social mindedness allowing himself to mildly criticize the government.He married a wealthy girl. Life went forward with better jobs, more money, better social position, children, new house and Ivan trying for more social approval, better facilities etc. As the novel says,
And when they began to live in their new place, which, as is always the case when a house gets lived in, lacked but one room to make it perfect; and on their new income, which as is always true, needed but the least little bit more, to make it sufficient for all their needs.When Ivan Illyich was in the height of career, as it always happens, death spread its shadow on him. With all the unpleasantness of disease, medicine and doctors, Illyich still hopes that he will not die. It was so painful and an unbelievable a matter that the syllogism that says Caius is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, is applicable to him as well. But, he dies as a lonely man, with the realization that even his family, for which he had worked hard and dreamt many things, longed for his death. His friends, when they heard Ivan Illyich's death, were thinking, as the novel says,
And so on learning of the death of Ivan Illyich the first thought that entered the mind of each of the gentlemen in the office was the changes and promotions affecting their own positions or those of their friends that would result.Ivan illyich as the representative of our delimited sense of life reminds us how insensitive is the modern technical civilization to life. Our need for an alternative, couples us with the Christmas fellowship. Illyich's death becomes our search for life.
Christmas is more significant, as we read both the above-discussed two centuries old stories against the twenty centuries old Christmas story. We claim to have gone far away from the time of the birth of Jesus and the early modern period in which Vanka and Illyich were written. But, as all of us know, the corridor of time that connects these two narratives and our time with the ambience of the Christmas fellowship is still wide and open (and in terms of improvement, ambiguous). Christmas's originary narrative happens to be more abundantly meaningful, as it falls in the eternally recurring space in between these two primeval concerns, that is, our search for God and life. Christmas is to reclaim its fellowship again with a cosmic responsibility.
by Pius Vazhappilly