As far as the northern hemisphere is concerned, Christmas lies almost exactly in the darkest time of year. This physical darkness has always been associated with the dark and menacing traits of human behavior. All the violence, terrorism and fanaticism, reckless commercialization and exploitation make people worried and scared, as do issues such as poverty and pollution. Many people cannot help but feel threatened, disheartened and overwhelmed by this torrent of dark, inimical and often obscure powers and problems.
The same feelings of helplessness and vulnerability are to be found in the Christmas story, where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus seem utterly helpless and vulnerable when threatened by the cruelty and military might of Herod.
And yet there is hope. In the Christmas story, an angel directs the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. Suddenly, the military might of Herod becomes impotent as the infant Jesus is protected by divine forces. The ghastly baby massacre ordered by Herod only further reveals his helplessness and growing panic.
The Message of Christmas
And this is one of the messages of Christmas: Humanity is not left to itself. In spite of all the horror, violence and ignorance in the world, spiritual protection and guidance can be experienced by those who possess the ability to listen to and follow their inner conscience.
With the emergence of natural science there arose a conception of the world as a clock mechanism – created by God but then left to itself without any intervention or guidance on God’s part. The message of Christmas is a different one: The Divine intervenes in the course of the world, protecting and supporting our individual and collective development. This help may take many different forms. In the Christmas story, the Divine itself is said to have taken birth in order to teach, guide and redeem humanity.
The Darkness of Ignorance
Darkness in Sanskrit is called ‘tamas’, which does also signify ignorance and delusion. Another Sanskrit term for ignorance is ‘avidya’, which is used a lot in Vedanta and describes the inability to discriminate between the permanent and the impermanent, the real and the unreal. The root of this ignorance is the ignorance of one’s true nature. This darkness of ignorance is the root cause for subsequent evils such as selfishness, violence, hate, greed and jealousy.
The Birth of God in the Ground of Soul
In this context, Christmas could be seen as an opportunity to remember that each human being carries a divine spark within. If fed, this spark can grow into the full flame of God-consciousness. This has been intuitively felt by the Christian mystics. Meister Eckhart called the innermost part of the soul the ‘soul-spark’ and repeatedly talked about the birth of Christ in the ground of soul. (See for example the sermon: ‘Von Gott und Mensch’).
The trust and devotion of Mary and the commitment and care of Joseph as well as the simple circumstances under which the birth took place are all hints as to how the soul may prepare itself for such a birth of God in the soul. Therefore, Christmas is about simplicity, introspection and retreat from the hustle and bustle of the world.
Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense (Classics of Western Spirituality). By Colledge, McGinn, Smith.