By M.J. Akbar
28 Dec, 2014
We believe in God not because of, but in spite of His magnificent creation, man. There is nothing much left to learn from the track record of a morally bipolar race. In a past age, the Sufi messenger of peace, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti came to India after the marauding Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni; in more contemporary times, the Gandhian Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan preceded the murderous Taliban.
The analogy might suggest a false equivalence, as if good and evil exist on this tense spinning ball called earth in a fifty-fifty trade-off. Most of our time is consumed either fending off or dealing with violence and its barbarous cousins. God is the stable ideal of all that we miss: love, security, justice in a world where pain is synonymous with life. Our need for justice is so desperate that we let our imagination get virulent in search of metaphors for hell.
Every faith sets aside a few days each year for a sort of temporary heaven on a patch of earthly time, where human beings discover goodwill to a choir of angels singing within a subconscious muzak. It is officially declared a season of peace and generosity.
Charity is a distraught term, with hints of snobbery. Islamic doctrine has a solution: charity should be anonymous, to eliminate the grating pride of ego. But if there is a proper way to give then there is also a suitable way to receive, none better than through the eyes and heart of a child. A child is wish-friendly but money-neutral. Value is judged by joy, not cost. A child, contrary to perception, is also a realist. While an adult, suborned by greed or ambition or upward mobility or downward depression, may demand a spacecraft where a balloon would serve, a child is happy to accept a balloon and turn it into a spacecraft. The finest gift for a child cannot be hung from any tree, or wrapped in a parcel: it is the gift of time.
A central question about Christmas, which marks the birth of Jesus Christ, and the nativity narrative, is rarely asked as psalms predict and song celebrates the adoration of kings of who lay gold, frankincense and myrrh at the feet of the lord. What did Mary, his mother, give her child? Time, from cradle to cross.
The offerings of three wise men, or kings, or Magi, are surely the most celebrated gifts of a cultural phenomenon that has long escaped the brackets of a single religion. As in all memory, there is more than one version. Saint Matthew’s testament reports that the monarchs followed a star to their destination, Bethlehem. Scholars, ever anxious to convert belief into specific strands, suggest that the Magi were Parsis, guardians of the holy flame, masters of astronomy, astrology, medicine. They could have come from Persia or India, following the Silk Route, currently the passion of Communist, God-less China. But all are agreed that they came from the Orient.
Christianity has become such a pervasive western fact that we tend to forget its Asian origins. Early church iconography painted the first family of the faith, correctly, in shades of brown, not the degrees of white in post-renaissance portraiture. Mary’s head was, and still is, draped in a modest chador, the custom of her age. As easily ignored is that Mary has a chapter in the Quran and Muslims revere Jesus [called Isa] as one of their greatest prophets. The Quran blesses Isa as Ruhollah, or the spirit of Allah. Muslims do not accept that Jesus was crucified, but that he was saved, nursed back to health, and went east to continue preaching outside the Roman Empire.
Christmas, however, is not about disputes. Let us rejoice that Muslim Turkey continues to glory in one of its most famous ancestors, Santa Claus. The cherubic face of Christmas gifts is not a Nordic old man riding a sleigh. Saint Nicholas was born in 270 in southern Turkey, when the land was mainly Christian, and rose to become Bishop of Myra. Today the town is known as Demre; locals revere their hero as “Noel Baba” and his church is a major tourist attraction. The Bishop was canonised soon after his death because he restored to life three sons, who had been butchered by their father; and, in another grim tale, rescued daughters on the point of being sold to slavery for lack of dowry. He brought a sackful of gold to their home and all was well.
For those interested in the piquant, St Nicholas never wore a red gown. That was the Coca Cola marketing department’s contribution to pop culture.
As we wait for 2015, nervous as usual about the future, one wonders if goodwill is too much to ask for and peace too much to pray for. Perhaps I should, like a child, stick to only the possible. May there be peace in India, and goodwill between every Indian for the next 51 weeks. The 52nd should look after itself.