A Star, a Manger, a Babe
By Valson Thampu
Fragmentation is the famine of life as we know it. Somewhere in the soul of every human being, the Wagnerian dome of life lies in smithereens. Our deepest longing is for wholeness, which eludes us like a mirage.
The universal agony in the human predicament is the rupture between the whole and the parts. We know intuitively that we are part of a cosmic whole, the fullness of which we can neither know nor ignore. Yet, we are intimately entwined with it. Even in the best of times we grope through life.
This burdens us. We try to mitigate this existential anguish by taking refuge in the parts. And believe it is practical to be partial. But we know, nonetheless, that it goes against the grain of life. When it comes to life, it is all or nothing.
The Christmas Event is universal because it addresses this anguish intrinsic to the human predicament. It cobbles together disparate fragments into a seamless whole of great symbolic significance. This resonance of the Nativity narrative is as significant as its factual details. As a matter of fact, even facts become symbols in the alchemy of the narrative.
Consider two such symbols: the ‘manger’ and the ‘star.’ The new-born Babe was laid in a manger in a cattle-shed. His birth was announced to the wise men of the east by a star. Linking the cosmic and the commonplace is a Babe, whose birth rattles a throne – Herod’s- in Jerusalem. (Birth can be very political, you know.) It is worthwhile to ponder over this nexus at a time when Jerusalem has been peremptorily kicked from the frying pan of ethnic hatred into the fire of a potential regional conflagration.
Certainly, one significant insight in this symbolic triad -the manger, the star, the Babe- is that we cannot do anything even in a cattle shed without touching a star! Everything about life -every form of life- has cosmic significance. The Babe links the manger and the star.
A little far away, there is another center: the center of political power, riddled with insecurity and big with intrigue. The logic at work there is quite the opposite. It thrives through ruptures. Violence is the womb of ruptures. In contrast, when a woman’s womb ruptures in the fullness of time, a new life comes into being. Man-made wombs of ruptures gestate monstrosities of injustice. Herod provides the contrast between the womb of life and the womb of death. His genius improvises the massacre of the innocents.
The news of the Birth reaches Herod, the politician. He feels jittery. Characteristically, he resorts to subterfuge. He feigns religious fervor. He asks the wise men from the east to ‘go and find out where the baby is born’ and to bring back the details, so that he too ‘may go and worship the infant’. Think of that! The distance between worship and murder has always been wafer thin. The outcome of Herod’s religious ardor is the butchery of two thousand male infants below two years of age.
The link between the manger and the star is crucial because it symbolizes the link between the physical and the metaphysical. This good earth is an integral part of the cosmos. Upon this earth, it is impossible to strike a blow on an atman without hurting the Brahman. That is why compassion is the soul of spirituality.
What, then, are we to make of the orgies of violence and bloodshed history has witnessed, all based on the presumption that men can lord over personal principalities of egotism and hubris. When men play god, they create empires of rupture. Man’s authority is built on subterfuge. It may pay lip-service to compassion, but cruelty is its operating logic. It has never ben, and will never be, otherwise.
The hope for our species lies in linkages: even seemingly extravagant linkages like the one between the manger and the star. The foremost of all linkages is the one between ‘the One and the many’, which opens the door to radically new beginnings. But, for linkages of that order to take place, we have to exit our Lilliputian empires of egotism, and believe in the new beginnings that can be made even from cattle-sheds.
The cattle-shed symbolizes the possibilities that exist outside the stereotypical patterns and paradigms that reign over us. The funny thing is that we covet new beginnings; but are unwilling to step even a little aside of the stereotypes by which we stay shackled.
The message of the Christmas Event is universal. It is not that some extra-smart tribal god is born. It is that new and radical beginnings are possible, provided we are willing to open our eyes and venture to step out of the groove, to encounter them.
This is the “tidings of great joy for all humankind” that the birth of the Holy Babe presages to humankind as a whole. Christmas is not a Christian event; just as Jesus was not, nor will ever be, a Christian.