Christmas Eve

Today’s readings are Luke 2:1-20 and Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “The 10,000 Things Return to the One” from The Whole World Is A Single Flower.

Luke 2:1-20 (REB)

In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child. While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.

Now in this same district there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; I bring you good news, news of great joy for the whole nation. Today there has been born to you in the city of David a deliverer – the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’ All at once there was with the angel a great company of the heavenly host, singing praise to God:

‘Glory to God in highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all in whom he delights.’

After the angels had left them and returned to heaven the shepherds said to one another, ‘Come, let us go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child, they related what they had been told about him; and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them. The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen; it had all happened as they had been told.

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “The 10,000 Dharmas Return to the One”

One day Zen Master Seung Sahn said to the assembly:
“The ten thousand Dharmas return to the One:
Where does the One return to?
Not mind, not Buddha.
Then what?”

Next he said:
“The ten thousand Dharmas return to the One:
Where does the One return to?
It is not one, not zero.
Then what? ”

If anyone at this moment can pass these two gates, I will give them inga [permission to teach].”

1. What is Dharma?
2. Where does the One return to?
3. What is the answer to the first gate?
4. What is the answer to the second gate?

COMMENTARY: Don’t check – moment to moment just do it.

Two classic texts from Christianity and Zen Buddhism: the eternal story of Jesus, and the eternal question of Zen. At first these texts seemed to me like a perfect match and a great way to end the year. What better answer to “where does the one return?” – in Christian language “where does God show up in your life?” – than the story of the nativity? Of course the One returns to us as the infant Jesus, born to his adoring mother and visited shepherds and wise men! As this translation says, this birth was “news of great joy for the whole nation.” Other translations read “good news of great joy for all the people” or “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Of course God comes (“returns”) to us (all of us?) as Jesus! This is great news! I was sure it would be easy to write about how Jesus returns to me in my daily life and how important it is for me to look each day into my heart and my life to find the One returning.

And yet as I sit down to write this seems too facile a combination. Thinking it over reminds me of all those tests I took in high school where we knew the answers the teacher wanted, leaving no room for critical thinking and creativity. This, in turn, reminds me of the simple equations of the Christianity of my childhood. What is God? See 1 John 4:8 – God is love. How do we know God loves us? See John 3:16 – God gave us God’s son, Jesus, so that instead of dying we may have eternal life. How should we be in relationship with God? See Micah 6:8. How should we treat others? See Matthew 7:12. These easy explanations of the Christian tradition now fray around the edges for me, just as I felt my own combination of texts fraying. Is there only one meaning we give to the life of Jesus or can there be many? And what about all the people for whom the Christian story has been a curse, the two thousand years of hate-filled treatment of Jewish people, women, the enslaved, native, and queer people whose bondage was perpetrated by Christians who justified their behavior with the Bible?

So, again… what of Christmas? What of God returning to the world as Jesus? Is there still meaning for me in this story? Where does the One return in my life? As I struggle with these texts on Christmas Eve I choose to take a step back and see the blessings of each tradition in my life. Are there many problems here? Yes, absolutely. But what of the good? Christianity and Buddhism help me orient myself in the world and give me ways to live. God, Jesus, and the Buddha return to me as a deep sense of wonder. I am in awe at the very fact of existence, at the miracle of birth, and the many blessings in my life. I am filled with wonder that despite all the ways in which this story has been abused, there is still goodness to be found on its surface and in its depths. I am filled with gratitude that Christianity and Zen can overlap so seamlessly for me. Finally, I am filled with joy at the table on Christmas Eve, sharing a delicious meal with friends and family.

For me this Advent season there were no easy answers, no easy way to read scripture. As I move into the Christmas season I find resonance and hope in being part of the Christian and Zen communities. The miracle for me, today, is not the birth of Jesus or that there is anything at all – although these are both miracles. For me the miracle is that this story is still important to me.

Two questions for Christmas:

  1. What is Christ?
  2. Where does Christ return?

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