When I think about Christ these days, I see him as a much more accessible figure than I did a few years ago, and oddly enough, this is because some time ago I finally admitted to myself that I simply am not, and have never been, a Christian. My idea of Jesus merges with my ideas of the pagan figure of the Green Man, the two seem immensely compatible to me, and this has allowed me to engage with the idea of Christ in a way I never thought possible. He has entered my pantheon, so to speak, as one of the manifestations of the divine masculine, now that I’ve finally stopped worrying about the claims of Christianity that he is the only one.
I didn’t grow up in a religious household, about the only time I ever saw the inside of a church was at family weddings. But, like most Australians, I grew up in a Christian Culture, I even had RI (Religious Instruction) at school. So I knew all about Adam and Eve, Noah and his ark, Moses, the three Wise Men, the crucifixion, and all that other stuff that we seem to learn by osmosis. But none of it ever ‘spoke’ to me, and quite early on I developed a distinct dislike for the whole ‘Lord, Father, Obey, Fear, One-True-God’ deal, to the point where I actively refused to even mouth the words to the prayers we were supposed to be saying at those weddings!
Perhaps even back then, I was aware that, as a female, there wasn’t really a place for me in all this. I felt excluded. But as a young child I was not aware of any alternatives, and it’s not as if finding my true spiritual calling was on the top of my priority list at age ten or so. It was more just a sense that it wasn’t right for me, I didn’t fit. But something was calling me, I just didn’t have a name for it. It called me through the books I read, and perhaps most influential at the time was Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It was most likely here that I first encountered the idea of a Goddess, ‘The Lady’. Or at least, the idea of a Goddess still active and immanent in the world. And it was here too that I first came across a very different image of the divine masculine, an image that most definitely did speak to me, so much so that I felt I was not discovering it for the first time, but rather rediscovering, remembering something I’d always known. And that image was Herne the Hunter.
I cannot now remember where or when I first became aware of the Green Man, but it must have been around the same time, and it too came with a powerful feeling of recognition, the rediscovery of something so familiar, so right, that I wondered how I could ever have forgotten. These two images entwined themselves together in my pre-teen mind, and remain connected, like two faces of a coin, even today.
So where did this leave Christianity? I think I’ve always known that I’m not a Christian, but to actually decide for sure, rather than prevaricating and just calling myself an ‘agnostic’, was a big step. To finally reject it all, instead of trying either to make me fit it, or it fit me, was quite a ‘leap of faith’. But an interesting thing happened. I rediscovered Jesus. Not in that ‘born again’ manner, it was just that I suddenly realised that I didn’t have to be a ‘follower’ to appreciate good advice when I heard it. I’d always thought that Jesus himself was quite a cool dude who said some pretty important stuff. But the two thousand years of baggage that Christianity brought with it just seemed to me to be a barrier to an appreciation of his teachings. I felt that if I agreed with some of what he said, I’d have to take on all that other Christian stuff and give myself the ‘Christian’ label. And I knew I just couldn’t, because I disagreed emphatically with a great deal of it. But when I finally decided, OK I’m not a Christian, I’m a Pagan and I always have been, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have to throw baby Jesus out with the bath water. Just as I can appreciate the teachings of Buddha without being a Buddhist, I can take on all the good stuff Jesus said, without having to take with it all that other stuff. And for me, two thousand years of accumulated junk dropped away, and I discovered two distinct Jesus images that I could engage with.
Firstly, the man. ‘Just a man’, just like the song from Jesus Christ Superstar tells us. Not always perfect, so I don’t have to agree with everything he said, but a guy who shook up the establishment, dared people to take a long hard look at themselves, right into their hearts, and to change themselves for the better and change the world at the same time. And what better teaching can we have in today’s world of fear and ignorance, hate and violence, than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? There are a few so-called Christians who could do with a refresher course on that one. It recently occurred to me too, that Gandhi's quote, "be the change you wish to see in the world", means essentially the same thing...it always starts with ourselves.
The second Jesus is a little more complex. And a little more ambiguous too, because he is hard to pin down. He is not a single idea, with a clear beginning and end, he is rather an accumulation of millennia of spiritual and religious ideas. He is a mythological figure, the divine solar child born at the winter solstice, born not as a physical child, but as a promise. A promise that the wheel of the year will keep turning, that rebirth will come, a promise of hope and renewal for the future. He is one of many similar deities, dying and reborn Gods who remind us that the cycle of life continues, that death is temporary, and must be followed by rebirth, just as in the depths of the harshest winter, my northern hemisphere ancestors were given the promise that spring will come. So many traditions accepted now as important aspects of Christmas, as well as other ‘Christian’ festivals like Easter, have been grafted on from these other sources, these older myths, from many different parts of Europe and the Middle East too. We can see the parallels between the Jesus myth, and those of Horus, Tammuz, Apollo, even Odin hanging on the Tree Yggdrasil to gain knowledge, or Prometheus paying the ultimate price to bring light (or perhaps enlightenment) to humans. He wears the mantles of many.
Of course, in the southern hemisphere, the ‘birth’ of this deity is celebrated in the middle of summer, which perhaps doesn’t make much sense if we think of him only as a dying and reborn seasonal God. Many down-under pagans prefer to celebrate this in June at our Winter Solstice. But for me, Christmas has developed a richer meaning than it had previously. Because really, the celebration of the birth of a divine child who carries all our hopes for the future of the world, for peace, for renewal and replenishing, for rebirth on a spiritual and emotional level, could happen anytime. What more perfect image could there be for the flame of hope we all carry within us for a better world, than a tiny, vulnerable baby? A baby who must be loved, cherished, nurtured and protected. A tiny ray of light, a spark of divinity held within the so very fragile body of a newborn. This tiny child, whatever he (or indeed she) is called, touches a huge number of people, and if that large number of people are all thinking about this on the 25th of December, what better time to chime in with my own feelings of love and compassion and hope?
Now perhaps it’s just my own peculiar brain, but I tend to see concepts as colours, and for me, Hope is green. It makes a kind of sense, if you think about the tiny green plants pushing their way to the surface of the soil, reaching towards the sun, growing, telling us that the ‘dead’ time of the year is over and the world is full of burgeoning life again. Of course, the Green Man is a part of this, he is the guardian of the natural world, the wild world that humans have tried so hard to control, or failing that, to destroy. At Christmas, we hang up our plastic Holly and Ivy, mostly unaware that these evergreens were part of that promise of rebirth, the promise that the ‘Green’ time would come again. I see them in part as the Green Man’s promise that he has not abandoned us, though he may have ‘died’, he is still with us and this is his promise that he will return. Now you’re probably thinking that I’ve gotten myself mightily confused and don’t know whether I’m talking about summer or winter, Christmas or Winter solstice, birth or death, and maybe you’re right…but it works for me. The tiny child whose birth is celebrated on the 25th of December is the symbol of hope in a world that desperately needs it. The adult Jesus who sacrifices his life for the greater good, and who, according to a story as old as time, dies and rises again, is the Green Man, promising us that the cycle goes on, the winter will end and spring will come. Darkness will not prevail and light will return. Whatever we choose to call him, he still holds out his hand and says “do not be afraid, death is not the end, I will always return.”
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And now for some appropriately Christmassy music...just in case you haven't yet been driven screaming up the wall by endless renditions of 'Frosty the @#$$&% Snowman' and 'Rudolph' in the shops and malls...I think I barely escaped with my brain intact this morning, and needed a cup of coffee and and a lie down when I got home!
First...Tim Minchin again. Yes, I know, a Christmas song by an avowed atheist. But it says a lot about Christmas that I like, and agree with. And it's sweet and funny.
I learnt this one as a kid, so probably an acquired taste...like vegemite!
And lastly, this is 'Taladh Chriosda', the Christ Child's Lullaby, by the group I used to sing with years ago. No, that's not me hitting the high notes (though I can... in the shower!), I'm singing down in my boots on this one, replacing the tenor who left for greener fields (or Byron Bay actually)!
Merry Christmas, Happy Midwinter, or whatever you might be celebrating, I wish you all a wonderful time, good food, good friends and family, peace and goodwill to all.