Religious Symbolism: The Inner Meaning of Christmas
This sermon was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on November 20, 2016. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
By Richard Galloway
Good morning. This morning we are going to explore the religious symbolism in the Christmas story. Almost everyone knows the story of Joseph, Mary and Jesus lying in the manger, the wise men and shepherds… Believe the accuracy of the historical account as you choose, but without the inner meaning of Christmas transforming our hearts, the story itself is just a story.
Writing this sermon has been a real struggle for me. The ideas were good, but something was missing. Finally it came to me: I was writing “about” the heart, not “from” the heart. To understand Christmas it is necessary to see it in the context of Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase means “acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world.” This is the “heart” of the Old Testament prophecies, especially those that predict the coming Messiah. The use of “the Heart” here is intentional.
The Star of Bethlehem: Showing us where the Christ can be found
I had to look deep for the answer for this. It started about 65 years ago with my Dad’s Christmas sermon about God’s love being born in our hearts. His telling of the simple acts of loving kindness in the story of The Other Wise Man touched me so deeply that I cried with joy. This has been a part of me ever since.1
And this morning2 my heart is especially open and it prays:
“Use me, use us to bring tikkun to our selves, our church and our nation in this time of socio-political angst. Help us let go of the disappointment and anger, and to take tikkun wherever we go.”
Interestingly, Dad’s three examples of love were all drawn from fictional, symbolic sources, not from scripture itself. To me that’s helpful. My modern mind has made me seriously question many religious concepts that have been grafted on to the story. Yet the central meaning still quietly guides me. (That’s not to say I always listen or get it right. If in doubt, ask my wife, Caren.)
What is it about this story that remains even if you or I doubt the historical accuracy of the biblical record, traditional views of God, Jesus, etc.? Is there something there for all of us?
The DaVinci Code begins when Professor Robert Langdon says:
“Symbols are a language that can help us understand our past… personally and culturally, and … our past actively determines our present…”
“A picture is worth a million words, but what words? What is a symbol itself? It’s an idea or image used to point to or represent something invisible and yet important beyond itself… something like the picture of a heart representing Loving Kindness. You can’t see Love; you can only see the effect of Love. Though unseen, Love is nonetheless the greatest force in human history.”
So what are the religious symbols behind the Christmas story?
The root of the Christmas story actually begins in Genesis with the metaphor of the Fall where man becomes progressively alienated: The separation of the ego from the Heart, the inner “likeness and Image of God” the Bible says we are. This separation leaves life empty of meaning and purpose. Not knowing yourself makes it impossible to really know and love others. The circle completes itself.
In the end we become alienated even from nature herself. These alienations are what theologians call “original sin,” or the brokenness in which we are all born to and shaped by. It is amazing that 800 years before Jesus the prophets, in Hebrew “dreamers,” could see through all that darkness to prophesy the coming of the light,…the Loving Kindness manifesting in human flesh and specifically beginning the reversing, redeeming of all the alienations of Genesis.
Still today this reversing seems impossible to most people. They say, “You can’t do anything about the brokenness of the world. It’s just the way it is.” The Christmas story suggests otherwise. These prophecies of redemption – to make something whole again – are hidden in the symbol of the Star of David. Let’s explore its meaning.
The Star of David: Shown as empty, only the potential
Dan Brown captures so much of the outer and physical meaning of the Star, but totally misses the inner ones. In this abstract symbol, the Star of David shows the essence of Masculine and Feminine intertwined. Equal and Balanced. Their union representing the “Divine Marriage.” But note simple form shown here is only an empty frame… a shell, only the potential of what can be.
Let’s examine its parts separately, or as seen in their alienated state.
The masculine aspect: The conscious mind, the ego
This triangle represents the alienated Masculine – alone,… by itself: Phallus, Father, Conscious mind, Ego. It is where our consciousness exist most of the time.
In its most positive aspect, it holds the growing body of human knowledge. It includes our understandings of history, culture, religion, science, economic organization and the means of production…all of which depend on its creation of language and writing,… a record through which we communicate and learn. It has as its tools logic, rational thought, the abilities to conceptualize and analyze. We have come to understand much about science and nature and how to use it for our benefit.
Basically everything we “think we know” at least appears to be the product of our ego. I like to call this the Superman aspect4, or at least the ego imagines itself this way. So far this seems good.
However, the outer mind is also the source of alienation. For thousands of years, human history has been ruled by men and the ego. The women are relegated to an inferior role in society and the feminine aspect of the psyche ignored, disparaged and even brutally suppressed. The male is the aggressive side. It conquers nations, enslaves and destroys cultures, seizes what is not theirs, … creates religious dogma to indoctrinate, subjugate and control, and threaten nature itself as something to be conquered and pillaged without regard for the consequences.
In this outer mind, you can see and believe anything you want,…to create total illusions,…with little or no semblance to reality,… and… not know the difference. In spite of all the good it has accomplished, the outer mind taken by its alienated self has become the problem.
Is there anything important missing from this picture so far? Oh yes. The feminine. Leaving her out of the picture is a big mistake. What is over looked so far?
The feminine aspect: The subconscious, inner feelings, intuitions
The feminine aspect: the Chalice, Womb, Subconscious… the protection and healing power of the nurturing mother,…the heart…the very depth of our being. What Jung calls the “natural mind: The actual source of many perceptions and intuitions the ego believes are its own. The raw awareness and learning ability observed in animals which was intrinsically there before the outer mind evolved. The ability to see patterns.
“In-sight:” the gift of prophecy; seeing the not-yet through feelings, intuitions, epiphanies, inspirations and dreams motivating and making our empty masculine ideas pregnant with meaning and purpose. As they say, behind every successful man is a woman .
Why are these positive aspects so hard to recognize as such? Because without the ego’s knowledge, the subconscious is full of darkness, fears, illusions and fantasies, bizarre imagined gods magically controlling everything,…and wishing that her incantations, icons and rituals will bring good fortune and prevent evil. On the other hand, it includes the trash the conscious mind puts there. Just keep this in mind.
This comparison of masculine and feminine may become clearer by seeing the two sides of ourselves side-by-side in contrast:
- Active and aggressive vs. passive and receptive.
- Analyses,…breaking into parts,… the tree into roots, branches, leaves, vs. synthesizes,…unites as a whole,…seeing the whole tree as a living thing, but also in relationship to its environment.
- His perspective of “me” vs. her perspective of “We.”
- Sees the self as “apart from” vs. “a part of” our environment,…in relationship.
- Independent of limiting commitments and rules vs. “in dependence,” understanding that we cannot meaningfully exist by being depend on each other.
- Seeks judgment and punishment vs. forgiveness and healing.
- Believes “law and order” achieved through force vs. the peacemaker who believes peace is the fruit of a just and caring society.
- Peace seen as the absence of war vs. peace seen as the presence of a positive – Shalom – which heals and builds up.
This “conflict” is normally seen through masculine eyes and the contrast described a “versus;” with her inner voice ignored or even suppressed in order that the alienated ego can continue to run headlong on its path of greed, violence and destruction, all the while trying to find something to fill the hole in his soul. He won’t find it in his alienated world. What he needs is not there.
This is the real “battle of the sexes” and all happens inside us. It ends with the ego completely “divorced” and isolated from everything including the other half of himself. Here’s the point: When you don’t have a real relationship, both sides of yourself are progressively diminished. “When you multiply ½ by ½ you get ¼,, less than you had on your own.”5 Why? Because the rest of that energy is literally expended on the conflict. The result is that the suppressed and forgotten feminine side becomes the neurotic unconscious Freud so ably described.
Let’s begin put the two back together. If they can only learn to work in harmony, isn’t it clear they will be stronger together? The way things are now, Freud is right: The subconscious is the storage place of much garbage. But according to Jung, it’s not true unless the ego buries a lot of garbage there. In The Nature Writings, Jung says, “the salvation of modern man is entirely contingent on redressing this imbalance in favor of the feminine aspect and the role of women within society.”
The “Virgin” Mary: The Untainted Subconscious still water perfectly reflects both the inner and outer world
The Virgin Mary represents the Untainted Subconscious which perfectly reflects the noblest of both the Inner and outer psyche: Here’s where we begin to understand the relevance of all this seeming deep background to the Christmas story. The virgin birth is one of the most central “miracles” in Christendom. Believe it “literally” if you want. But it’s a little hard for some of us to swallow. Maybe it can be understood either or both ways.
The thing is: It might not be the “literal” meaning of scripture; suppose the Hebrew word has been misconstrued by rendering it as “virgin,”… never having had sexual relations. Now here’s the thing: The most literal way to translate the Hebrew word “virgin” is “untainted, innocent, without selfish thoughts or actions…” That changes the meaning in significant ways.
But realistically what could that mean in understanding our own inward journey? I mean, when you’ve lost your virginity….Is it even possible for our subconscious to become virginal, untainted again?
St. Joseph: The embodiment of “conscious loving;” the committed marriage partner; loving father, provider, protector
Here we begin to see the highest state of the masculine…symbolically St. Joseph… The ego choosing, committing to be in relationship.5
This is the quiet awareness, the calm abiding that observes both outwardly and inwardly clearly –always asking what is the right thing to do right now. He’s the committed marriage partner, loving father, provider, protector. That’s Joseph’s responsibility. His commitment is necessary to move from the pathological to our positive potential. How can this happen?
Think of the subconscious as being like a dark closet where you throw all the garbage you don’t want to deal with. Suppose one day you notice that there’s almost no room left and you think: “Someday I’m going to have to clean that all out.” This is the beginning of “conscious loving,” an intentional recognition of the need to stop abusing ourselves. And once you see this unambiguously, a commitment to the cleansing is almost unavoidable. You can’t un-know what you know.
This is the path of the symbolic Saint Joseph, who cleans up his act to woo his betrothed. That is the masculine counter-part of the “virgin.” How is this accomplished?
The process begins in earnest when the ego realizes this work of letting go of control and sharing is in the ego’s own self interest. Every bit of trash removed is a step closer to her innocence and their marriage. This happens – not through sack cloth and ashes, not through a sense of guilt – but through a healing act of self-love reuniting the two halves of the psyche. St. Joseph assumes his proper role as the loving servant, the protector and provider. The payoff is huge: The overcoming gets progressively easy and the rewards greater as the two become one.
Now finally, what do you think the proper relationship between the two is? The masculine control, force, suppression…or a trusting, mutual relationship,…a sharing,…working together for mutual good? It’s all inside you. Why hold back? Why not love yourself completely?
The Christ: Love incarnate, the shining star, bringing light into the darkness
The meaning of the Christmas Star is now complete guiding us to where the Christ Child is to be born – inside of us.
When the ego takes on “conscious loving” and the subconscious progressively embodies the “untainted” motherly love, where before the conflict consumed their energy, now a new synergy is created with the two united as one within and bearing the offspring tikkun, loving kindness into the world. The results can be amazing. Some might even think it appropriate to call it a “miracle.” If you have ever even once seen this, you know… Loving Kindness is the Heart and Soul of scripture.
The meaning of the Christmas Star is now complete guiding us to where the Christ Child is to be born – inside of us – the offspring of the marriage union of the masculine and feminine. When the ego commits to “conscious loving” and the subconscious progressively embodies the “untainted” motherly love, where before conflict consumed their energy, now a new synergy is created with the two united as one and bearing the offspring tikkun, loving kindness into the world. The results can be amazing. Some might even think it appropriate to call it a “miracle.”
This is the Child that already lies deeply within us seeking to be born through us as acts of loving service. Just one act a time, ever slowly lifting the world around us. The only miracle I believe in is what happens through us as this Christ Child begins to grow towards its maturity. But the very first miracle is that it heals us in the process. This is the spiritual path we tread.
This is the Child, the spark of God, the Buddha nibanna6 that already lies deeply within us seeking to be born through us as acts of loving service. Just one act a time, ever slowly lifting the world around us. The only miracle I believe in is what happens through us as this Christ Child begins to grow towards its maturity. Here’s the thing: The very first miracle is that it heals us in the process.
The meaning of the Christmas Star is now complete guiding us to where the Christ Child is to be born – inside of us. When the ego take on “conscious loving” and the subconscious progressively embodies the “untainted” motherly love, where before the conflict consumed their energy, now a new unseen synergy is created with the two united as one bearing the offspring tikkun, acts of loving kindness into the world. The results can be amazing. Some might even think it appropriate to call it a “miracle.”
This is the Child that already lies deeply within us seeking to be born through us as acts of loving service. Just one act a time, ever slowly lifting the world around us. The only miracle I believe in is what happens through us as this Christ Child begins to grow towards its maturity. But the very first miracle is that it heals us in the process.
The story of The Other Wise Man keeps coming back to me. Acts of kindness had delayed Artaban’s trip costing him the first of the gems he brought for the Child. Even more, the other three wise men had gone on without him. He spent his entire life and all his gifts following where the star lead him to offer his perfect gifts for the Christ Child. He had searched for the Child from Bethlehem to Egypt, …Nazareth and Judea and now thirty years later back to Jerusalem. Along the way he had given all his gifts meant for his king to minister wherever he found need.
It was the ninth hour,…the hour of the crucifixion. The sky darkened and the earth shook. A tile fell from the roof where he stood striking him on the head. Now in his dying moment, feeling his life had been in vain, he hears that still small voice saying: “ In as much as you have done it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.” He had found the Christ and delivered his perfect gift.
Over 2,600 years ago the prophets foresaw Loving Kindness becoming flesh to transform the world. And they already knew through whom it would come. “Whom,” you ask? Their answer is: both you and me.
What a beautiful story which shows us the path of loving service that lead the wise men to freedom,… the treasure of great worth,… the rock which will withstand any storm. This is my promise to you: It will be more than just a pretty story if you only let it. This is my prayer: May that same love and joy that first touched my heart over half a century ago touch us all today bringing tikkun olam to ourselves, our church, our nation and world.
Go in peace and may the joy of the Christmas message fill our hearts and minds. May it be so.
Richard Galloway is a member of Harmony.
Religious Symbolism: Questions for discussion
- Do you have to believe the Christmas story literally happened as described in scripture for it to have meaning for your life?
- Does it change things to see the entire meaning of Christmas or even scripture itself is all a metaphor for what is taking place within you? How?
- Did you learn anything this morning that changes how you understand the Christmas story? How might it impact your life?
- Is this all just words or does it touch your heart? What is the difference between the two?
- Why does the story begin with the story of the Fall in Genesis? Does using the various forms of alienation broaden the meaning for you? Is it helpful to see Christmas as the overcoming or reversing the Fall,… the alienation within us and with the world?
1. The Story of The Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke, Harper & Brothers, ©1895↩
2. The sermon was given the first Sunday after the election which included a significant amount of tension among our congregation.↩
3. In this video from The Da Vinci Code, which is available to stream on Netflix, begins at 1:05:51 +/- with “Now Robert…help us” and ends at 1:06:47 “the ancient symbol of womanhood.” Where he describes the masculine and feminine in the Star of David.
4. I also like to use the “male answer syndrome” in this context. It goes like this: Ask any man a question and even if he knows absolutely nothing about the subject, he will open his mouth and expound as truth whatever enters his mind. Google it for a larger context. ↩
5. Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-commitment, Hendricks & Hendricks, Bantum paperbacks, ©1992, p8 Conscious Loving, p8↩
6. It is my opinion that Buddhism describes this inner awareness and how to find it far more clearly than either Judaism or Christianity. At the same time, I believe Judeo-Christianity has a much better developed morality based on a just and caring community. ↩