The Symbolism of the Life of Christ
The human mind, at least in its empirical aspect, has not a very big span of appreciation. It cannot begin to encompass even a fraction of all empirical knowledge; still less can it comprehend the all-embracing spiritual truth. Like a bird, it pecks at a few crumbs here and there. The idea that the empirical mind is competent to know truth, just because it has some spectacular successes in science or philosophy, is as ridiculous as the idea that we have it in our power to explore the whole universe, simply because we have succeeded in getting to the moon. Even the solar system is an insignificant detail of the universe. Yet our own sun is so far away that it takes 8.5 minutes for light to reach us from it, and the next nearest star, in the Alpha Centuri system, is 4.3 light years away. It is now estimated that there is something in the order of 100 billion other stars within our own local galaxy, and more than a trillion other galaxies.
The most that the empirical mind can hope to do is to approach the truth through symbols. In other words, it needs an empirical focus to rest on. The truth is universal and immutable. It does not come and go, nor does it temper itself to the vagaries of fashion. But the symbol has the power of bringing the abstract truth down to the concrete, and of creating a channel for the empirically directed mind to establish a connection with the transcendent reality. It gathers into one particular spot a universal experience. It manifests within time and space something beyond time and space. It renders human and accessible what is otherwise beyond our reach.
It is to provide such a focus for mankind at large that the divine Incarnations (Avataras) have been born and have lived among us, to teach and to express within empirical life the reality of the spiritual values. True are the words of Goethe: ‘The things that must pass are only symbols.’ The life of Jesus of Nazareth was something that was and is no more. The exact circumstances of the event are the subject of endless debate and conjecture, but what it symbolised has a permanent validity.
Birth is for all human beings the symbol of immortality in the empirical world, because it is renewal and the promise of life to come. The birth of Christ is more than this: it is the symbol of the immortality of the spirit, forever entering into and renewing itself in empirical life. Life is forever infusing new forms, and then discarding them as they become outworn. It is like the spirit itself, which, intrinsically immortal, dons now one empirical form and now another. Islam teaches indeed that all created things are being reborn and recreated at each moment, that the Lord brings them into existence from non-existence, from the unmanifest, by His creative fiat: Be! Spiritual wisdom is continually pouring forth from the ultimate Reality, like light from the sun, and warming and sustaining all living beings, neutralizing the poisonous germs of spiritual ignorance. The light continually shines through the darkness, even though the darkness does not comprehend it.
Christ came to demonstrate again the supreme power and attraction of the spiritual values. He came to show the strength of the empirically weak and helpless. He came to show that all beings contain within their soul the element of perfection which is more precious than the whole world. This great teaching was a negation of all the wrong values which the mind tends to accept under the impress of ignorance—avidya. Christ demonstrated, even in the circumstances of His birth, that the greatness of a person does not depend on the possession of wealth and power, but in reliance on God, the Supreme Self, who is within; that the true achievement in life is not born of acquisitiveness, but of giving, blessing, teaching, and sharing with others, not only our worldly goods, but also wisdom. He was a God of the poor—and of the rich too, if they can pass through the eye of the needle of renunciation, of denying the ego-interests.
Institutionalised Christianity may be losing its power in Western society, but we can see even today much evidence of the direct appeal made by the life of Christ Himself to the heart of the ordinary man. That appeal may be only dimly understood, or even misunderstood, but the human heart recognises something of the spiritual promise which is contained in the birth of Christ at Bethlehem. And it is a promise which brings joy and light to all mankind.