[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
If Jesus could come back and see our Christmas celebrations, what would he make of them? What would the humble carpenter from Nazareth think of all this praise of his birth? What would he think of the gifts, the carols, the lights, the feasts? How would he feel about the commercialism? Would he even want us to celebrate Christmas, and if so, how?
We could speculate endlessly on the answers to these tantalizing questions. Yet if you believe that Jesus wrote A Course in Miracles, the answers are not so mystifying. For in A Course in Miracles he discusses the celebration of Christmas (specifically, in sections X and XI of Chapter 15 of the Text, from which all quotes will be unless otherwise identified). He does not spend time criticizing our current way of celebrating Christmas. All he says is “you know not how to do it” (T-15.X.1:6), and then launches into his idea of how we should celebrate, an idea that bears literally no resemblance to how we celebrate now.
To understand his idea, we need to lay down a conceptual foundation. According to Jesus, we have totally confused love and fear, two concepts which are mutually exclusive. In our eyes, love is synonymous with making sacrifices on behalf of the beloved. And that is exactly what we expect from our loved ones, right? We expect them to show their love by sacrificing for us, by expending time and energy and passion and money on us. Yet sacrifice is loss, and so to demand that our loved ones sacrifice for us is to demand that they lose for our sake. If that is what love is, then love must be “inseparable from attack and fear” (X.6:7); to be intensely loved is to be sucked dry. No wonder we run from love. This dire state of affairs prompts an unequivocal statement from Jesus: “You who believe that sacrifice is love must learn that sacrifice is separation from love” (XI.4:1).
Jesus tells us that this confusion of love and sacrifice is actually the root of our separation from God. If we believe that love demands sacrifice, we will naturally assume that God’s absolute Love will utterly devour us, for “total love would demand total sacrifice” (X.7:2). Therefore, in the dim beginning, to keep ourselves from being swallowed up, we cast God away from us. We also cast out all of Heaven, including all of our brothers. We severed our awareness of our oneness with all reality, to protect ourselves from what we saw as love’s devouring fire.
The result, of course, is that we feel all alone, “incomplete and lonely” (XI.4:8). What else did we expect? Yet, feeling this way, the last thing we want to admit is that we did this to ourselves. That would feel awful. And so, instead, we try to pin it on our brothers: They put us in this condition of being incomplete and lonely. They took away our oneness with the All. And they did it with all their demands for sacrifice, all their expectations that we prove our love by pouring ourselves out until we had nothing left. They did it with their smothering love. They took and took until any sense of completion we had was replaced by an empty void.
The only logical course now seems to be to grab love from them, the love we think they stole from us. So we impose our own demands. We believe that if we can find enough willing partners, and successfully pressure them into sacrificing for us, we can be filled up again. Although this is an act of taking from them, we frankly feel justified. The Course says that as long as you “perceive yourself as a victim of sacrifice” you will feel “justified in sacrificing others” (XI.5:2).
In my experience, we have a terrible time owning up to the demands we impose on others. We often refuse to admit the demands are there even when they cause obvious friction. Or we euphemistically refer to them as mere “expectations.” Or we see them as totally justified, placed on others by the needs of the situation rather than by us. Or we justify them by saying that we have needs too. We simply don’t want to admit just how many and how savage are the demands for sacrifice we lay on others.
Our demands are rarely thicker, heavier, and harder to decipher than at Christmastime. We expect our “loved” ones to share this time with us (rather than with someone else), to bring us the right gifts and the right food for dinner, to set aside our painful past and, for one day, abide with us in the timeless, rosy glow of the perfectly staged family portrait. In essence, we expect them for this one day to conform to some fantasy ideal that they cannot possibly manage to live up to the rest of the year. And we feel the same expectation from them. There is thus the pressure coming from us and the pressure coming at us. Though Jesus does not say it, I think he probably views our Christmas as a celebration of the demand for sacrifice.
Yet, ironically, Jesus was born to free us from the idea of sacrifice. In these sections (specifically, in XI.7) Jesus explains the purpose of his birth. In light of the paragraphs preceding it, his explanation amounts to this remarkable thought: Jesus was born to overturn our fundamental belief that the demands of others have deprived us of our completion, which lies in our oneness with reality. What a novel interpretation of the purpose of his life! To understand how he accomplished it we must look to the end of his life. His crucifixion was a stark picture of a man literally surrounded by the most vicious demands for sacrifice, demands which finally exacted the ultimate toll: the sacrifice of his body. Yet, even though his body died, in his resurrected state he remained in communication with his followers. In spite of his death, his joining with his brothers was unbroken. In short, the demanded sacrifice of his body had no effect on his oneness with other minds (see XI.7:2-3).
He was giving us a parable. As with all parables, we are meant to identify with the main figure. If we do, the message of the parable becomes simple: No matter how severe are the demands for sacrifice around us—even to the point of calling for our death—they cannot take from us our native oneness with all minds. That oneness is still there, untouched by all the demands that anyone has ever laid on us. And only that oneness will fill the hole we have been trying to fill by getting others to love us.
Strangely, we have been imprisoned not by the demands laid on us, but by the demands laid by us. The way to freedom therefore lies in releasing others from our tyrannical expectations. And that is exactly what Jesus did in his crucifixion. By responding without defense or protest, he was in essence saying, “I place no demands on how you treat me.” This is how he was liberated from the ego’s strictures and awakened to his oneness with all minds. This, says the Course, is how the crucifixion led to the resurrection (seeT-6.I.2:7).
And this, as you may guess, is how he wants us to celebrate Christmas. He wants us to do what he did: to release others from our demand that they sacrifice in order to make us feel loved. His whole discussion of Christmas, in fact, leads up to him giving us a practice for releasing others, a practice meant to be the core of our new celebration of Christmas.
To do this practice (found in XI.10:5-7), we need to identify someone on whom we have placed demands, perhaps the demand that she love us in the way we want, or apologize for some past misdeed, or change her ways and become a better person. Perhaps we should pick someone on whom we have laid “Christmas demands”—that he show up on Christmas, or give us a better gift than last year, or help out with dinner more. It does not matter how innocent or justified our expectations seem to be. They are still an attack. Having identified this person, let us now silently speak the following lines to him or her, slowly and as sincerely as we can. I’ll comment on each line separately in order to draw out its meaning:
I give you to the Holy Spirit as part of myself.
This means that, rather than keeping you imprisoned in the jail of my demands, I release you into the freedom of the Holy Spirit. Rather than clutching you in my fist, I surrender you into His hands. This can seem frightening, as if I am saying goodbye. But I am giving you to Him “as part of myself.” You and I are one. I am placing you within the freedom that is my true home as well.
I know that you will be released, unless I want to use you to imprison myself.
If only I released you from the burden of my demands, you would be free. And I would do so eagerly the instant I realized that my demands have imprisoned not just you, but both of us. The chains I sought to lay on you were laid on me as well.
In the name of my freedom I choose your release, because I recognize that we will be released together.
I release you from all my expectations, all the roles I assigned to you, all the hoops I trained you to jump through. I do this to release us both.
I recommend practicing this with everyone we have expectations of this Christmas. Let this inner practice be our true Christmas celebration, whatever we do on the outside. According to the Course, if we can say these words and truly mean them, we will enter into a holy instant in which we experience the unlimited oneness which is our true completion. From this instant we will go forth into a different future, in which we would rather free people from their chains than lay more on. And that is what Christmas is supposed to be: a holy time from which is born not only a new year, but a new kind of year. It is meant to be a time in which we celebrate the real purpose of Jesus’ birth by letting that purpose be reborn in us.
EXERCISE IN CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS ACIM-STYLE
Choose someone you have a lot of expectations of, especially at this time of year.
What are the demands you have made on this person? What are some of the things you expect of him or her, particularly at this time of year? Try to be as honest as you can.
What are the demands this person would claim you have laid on him or her?
Is there some truth in these claims?
Can you see that your demands have imprisoned this person?
Can you see that your demands have imprisoned you? If so, how?
Do you have some degree of belief that to be loved is to be asked to make sacrifices, that if someone loves you that person will want something from you? Looking over the course of your life, what taught you this belief?
Is it possible that this belief was taught to you by your demands?
Is it possible that you do not experience God because you are afraid of His total Love, due to your belief that “total love would demand total sacrifice”?
Could it not be, then, that what has pushed God away from you is your own demanding love, because it has caused you to believe that His Love would be a monstrous version of yours?
Practice for Releasing Another from the Demand for Sacrifice
|I give you to the Holy Spirit as part of myself.||I surrender you into His hands. But this does not mean that we separate. You are part of me; we are both in His hands.|
|I know that you will be released, unless I want to use you to imprison myself||The only thing that could keep you from being released is me wanting to imprison you, but that would imprison me, too.|
|In the name of my freedom I choose your release, because I recognize that we will be released together.||I choose your release because I know that in doing so I choose our release.|