With Christmas almost here, the question naturally arises: "In our modern pluralistic world, what does CHRIST mean?" Because I live (as ALL of us Euro-Americans do) in a landscape that still carries the vibrations and presence of the indigenous people whose original home this is, I am painfully aware of the injustices that have been carried out by so-called "Christians" in the devastation of the American Indian cultures which have for generations blessed the land, creatures, water, skies and rocks on which we all depend for sustenance. Added to this suffering is the fact that I teach at a "Buddhist-inspired" university where a sizable number of students carry the wounds caused by the oppressive aspects of Christianity as manifested in their own lives and throughout all of recent world history. After all, many people "go East" because of the rigidity, dualism, bigotry, narrow-mindedness and guilt-ridden aspects of the Christian tradition they grew up with. As one of just several representatives of Christian Mysticism on campus, I feel a responsibility to help heal and counter-balance the suffering caused by so-called "Christians" through sharing instead the liberating aspects of the Christ-experience, especially during this Christmas season.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian tradition that taught me to view Christ as an object of adoration and devotion. I am grateful for this upbringing, for it enabled me to value the qualities of humility, warmth, compassion, forgiveness, social justice, a preference for the poor, and an experience of the Ultimate Mystery as "fatherly" in the best sense of the word - all traits I learned from Jesus. However, after practicing the contemplative Christian path for the past thirty years, I have gradually learned to interiorize those very qualities and (when I'm at my best), RADIATE the presence of Christ from the depths of my being. These days, I rarely ever TALK about Christ, not because I don't love him, but because I experience a greater ONENESS with his presence than ever before. And one of the qualities I value most about Jesus (as I also do with other religious figures like Gautama Buddha, Rumi, Mirabai Starr and Frank Fools Crow) is the kenosis or SELF-EMPTYING that is an innate part of his spiritual identity. I sincerely believe that Jesus never meant to found a religion, but rather to illuminate all of reality in a new light.
Rather than make Jesus into an object of devotion, I NOW feel called to embody his presence as a sort of invisible light shining on all things, causing them to glow in their own true divinity. Just as each religious figure enables all of life to glow in a unique "hue" or set of spiritual qualities (yet without asking for recognition or devotion in return), so does Christ. Like the alpenglow sun - hidden below the horizon, yet illuminating and highlighting the innately radiant beauty of a landscape's peaks, buttes and mesas - so all of these spiritual masters ask for no devotion or recognition in return for their service to the world.
Speaking personally, I experience the humble, self-emptying quality of Buddhist traditions in the highlighting of reality in a cool, let-it-be, "blue" kind of hue. For me, Native American traditions bring out the "greenish," Earth-based coloring of the same reality. Sufism highlights the "reddish," passionate dimension of all things. Similarly, Christ brings out the warm, gently-loving "gold" hue of the same reality. Mirabai Starr, a woman who spearheaded the modern Interspiritual Movement, elicits perhaps the "white-light" dimension (which includes ALL of the colors) of the world. And so on, with each spiritual tradition. Obviously, these color associations are merely my own. Others would probably have a different experience. In any case, each tradition functions like a different-colored sunset sky, illuminating the innate beauty of the resident cloud formations in a multitude of different ways. Just as all of the colors are needed to compose the light spectrum, so each tradition (and each non-tradition, including a-theism and agnosticism) is necessary for completing the Whole.
Christ is referred to in scripture as the "light of the world," and my own contemplative experience teaches me that this light NEVER shines on itself, and does not even care to be named or recognized! Rather, it uncovers the already-present sacredness of the world, highlighting all things in calm, warm, "gold" and radiant love. Or, in Thomas Merton's famous phrase, Christ serves as a "Hidden Ground of Love" on which life is able to manifest itself in all of its radiant glory.
No matter what our religious tradition (or non-tradition), I pray that all of us this holiday season may find the grace to serve as a unique variation of this hidden light - this humble, self-emptied ground of being - on which all individuals, cultures, religions, species and landscapes may feel empowered to reveal their innate sacredness in all of its radiant splendor. Indeed, in what other way will "peace on earth" truly arrive but by ALL of us working to illuminate the sacredness of one other and of this amazing and beautiful planet?
Photo: Alpenglow on Bellvue Dome, Bellvue, CO, December 20, 2015
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Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.