The Holy Family – Thoughts for a Christmas Eve
The image of Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus in that stable long ago, in the company of lowly shepherds and hushed barnyard animals on a cold, frosty December night evokes such tenderness in hearts, young and old, around the world. It is a scene mixed with poignancy, sacredness, and a timelessness that comforts and uplifts.
The images of Jesus’ birth bring together the mundane with the sublime, the natural with the supernatural, the individual with the archetypal, and the personal with the historic. I wonder too if the image and underlying meaning of the “holy family” speaks to us of our essential and elemental human nature: the father (masculine), the mother (the feminine), the spiritual (and therefore pure, i.e., the child), the past (the parents), the present (the scene), and the future (the child), all meet in a singularly cosmic, and yet personally immediate, tableau, frozen in both time and timelessness.
It is difficult to imagine Joseph and Mary as individuals, for their lives have long since vanished into legend, myth, and into the dim past. The so-called facts of the story as given to us in the Bible go far beyond our human experience: the husband engaged but not the father, the wife pregnant by alleged divine intervention, her travelling on a donkey in her “ninth month,” and all because of a taxation census decree called by some “dude” in Rome, far away, “no room at the inn,” and giving birth in a barn ….. whoa! Sounds like a Disney movie, and throw in that moving star and three very wise fellows on camels in cool costumes from “the east!”
We yogis who believe in so-called miraculous powers, demonstrated even in modern times by masters of yoga (Paramhansa Yogananda is said to have raised a person from death at least twice according to eye witnesses), might take all of this “lying down,” and so, too, believing Christians who simply check the box that says, “Miracle” (no explanation needed).
But even we must, or at least should consider the effort to, distill some personal significance from such an inspired and powerful story. How can we understand this scene in the present tense, in the reality of our own lives? Can we discern some timeless, universal, and metaphysical meaning, as well?
The metaphysical significance of this scene is not difficult to unveil, for the stable setting says to us that the infant child of spiritual consciousness is given birth in humility. The child is a “king” because the soul, being a child of the Infinite, is the royal child of God. The birth taking place at night and at the winter solstice signifies the death of the ego as a pre-condition for the soul’s re-birth into human consciousness. The darkness also symbolizes inner silence, or meditation, as the cradle from which God’s grace is given birth.
The soul is considered a child because our spiritual awakening is, at first, helpless or dependent on parents and surrounded by animals. Parents refer to teachers (perhaps a priest, or minister or other giver of truth teachings) and teachings (such as given in scriptures that are studied). The presence of animals refers to the fact that at the birth of our soul’s awakening we are still very much enmeshed in body and sense consciousness (our lower nature, in other words).
The wicked King Herod, who plots the death of the infant, is our enemy ego supported by his soldiers from our sub-conscious. He kills all of the infants in the surrounding villages because any form that soul consciousness takes (peace, kindness, wisdom, pure love, etc.) must be killed. All higher qualities represent a threat to the ego’s hegemony.
As an aside, in just this same way, and in the great Indian epic story called the Mahabharata, the evil forces would not give on inch of territory to the rightful heirs and thus the famous and historic war of Kurukshetra ensued and became the allegorical basis for the great scripture of India, the Bhagavad Gita. In addition, at the birth of Lord Krishna (centuries before Jesus), another wicked king sought to kill the child for the exact same reasons: a prophecy that this child would usurp his kingdom!
The star, described as “his” star, symbolizes the child’s high spiritual stature, as does the visit from “three wise men from the East” (think India!). In ancient times the heavens gave signs and wonders of such historic and miraculous events. Metaphysically the star represents intuition, or the “third eye” (“spiritual eye”) seen in meditation in the forehead. This inner light becomes the devotee's guide and it was this intuitive guide, not some astronomical anomaly that the visitors from the east followed. As another point of interest, Paramhansa Yogananda told audiences in America that the three wise men were his own preceptors from India (in former lifetimes): viz., Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar. (It must have taken some courage to say such a thing publicly in America during the Thirties!)
The angels singing “on high” in the hills is another symbol for the high spiritual stature of the child Jesus, for he indeed is considered an avatar: a soul who has achieved Self-realization (oneness with God) and has returned to physical birth as a savior for many souls.
Now let’s take a more personal turn, away from the archetypal, and inward to our own lives. The sanctity of Joseph and Mary as “the parents” reminds us that our spiritual awakening is preceded (seeded) by our efforts to live a moral and balanced life. Balancing male and female qualities in ourselves is one way of describing this process. From Joseph we learn self-control, justice, surrender to God’s will, servicefulness, and nobility; from Mary, purity, (also) surrender, modesty, endurance and faith in the goodness of God.
Joseph’s somewhat odd position as a kind of step father represents for us the realization that even the power to change on a human level has its source in God, in the higher power of our soul’s eternal wisdom and power. Specifically, this power comes to us through the agency of the Holy Ghost, or Holy Vibration: the primordial and underlying sustaining energy of the universe which is God immanent in creation. That the Holy Ghost inseminated Mary reminds us that the conception of the infant child of our soul’s reawakening has an essentially a divine source, for the child represents our higher self, or soul, and it is a reflection of God, a spark of the Infinite Spirit. It cannot therefore be conceived by merely ego tendencies, even the ego’s high aspirations.
Other aspects of our own spiritual journey include the message that we are “reborn” in the dark night of inner silence of prayer, meditation, and self-forgetfulness (desirelessness). The barnyard animals, hushed and attentive, represent our own animal nature, our lower nature, which must be stilled and quieted for this “inner soul child” to be born.
As the shepherds guide and protect their flocks, so, for us, does reason and intellect acts as shepherds, or guides, to our daily actions. But they, too, take their inspiration on the surrounding hilltops of self-reflection guided by the starlight of intuition. They receive intuitive counsel from the angels of our higher nature. We are instructed to come down from the hills of ego-consciousness and enter the cave (stable) of silence, of prayer and meditation. There we “worship” the soul’s inner light.
King Herod represents our subconscious habits, tendencies, and desires, vitalized through ego-affirmation and protectiveness. King Ego will stop at nothing to kill this young child for it instinctively knows that, though a child and seemingly helpless, it has the potential to de-throne the ego.
The holy family was told by an angel to flee into Egypt and to return only when called and it was safe. Thus it is that we are warned, as new devotees, to stay in close company with other, more seasoned devotees and to stay focused upon his newly adopted spiritual teachings, practices, and fellowship, before daring to venture out into the world of former friends and activities.
So, you see, the Holy Family and the night of Christ’s birth have lessons universal and timeless for each and every one of us.