India is a land seeped in spirituality. Indians have a worthy reputation of being ardent spiritual seekers. It’s no surprise that the subcontinent happens to be the cradle of at least four of the twelve major world religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The ideas of karma, mukti, moksha, and nirvana are central motivators of life for any spiritual Indian to this day.
In the backdrop of such a salvation-driven eastern culture, the motif of Christmas seems supremely relevant. Different world religions and traditions have looked at the idea of salvation differently through the ages. Christmas offers the biblical explanation of the human predicament and the divine involvement that enables mukti and moksha.
As Charles Sell poignantly observes of the human predicament: “If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.”(1)
Thinking of divine intervention, Hinduism is replete with the idea of Avatars in its religious texts and traditions. Avatars are divine incarnations that would come into this world at crucial points to restrain evil that had crossed a certain threshold. With their mission completed, having accomplished the purpose of their birth, they seal the circle of life with their death.
The story of the historic Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated at Christmas is similar in some ways, yet vastly different. The eternal Son of God puts on human form in the Incarnation. He enters the very world he created as an infant miraculously born of a virgin. But his entry into this world is not to restrain evil, but to overcome it. Not for a time (yug) but forever. He validated his victory over evil by vanquishing death itself, the final tangible evidence of evil through his resurrection from the dead. He remains forever, fully God and fully Man. Certainly an atypical avatar.
The beauty of the story of Jesus is the purchase of victory, through defeat, another rather radical and unusual departure from any typical avatar narrative. In a world rooting for macho messiahs and avengers, the Jesus narrative is a counter-narrative, it is an odd narrative, and it is a neglected narrative seldom explored, sparsely understood.
The “all is well” anthem that is peddled around is more an indicator of a deep desire than it is of the reality. We live in disturbing times. All is certainly not well within us or around us. All is not well for those mourning the loss of a loved one, for those battling chronic illnesses, for those struggling to repay debts, for those whose marriages are at the brink of collapse. It is to such wounded and weary, downcast and distraught souls that the counter-cultural protagonist, Jesus, reaches out to and communicates hope and cheer. The biblical, historic Jesus, is deeply familiar and intimately acquainted with human pain and sorrow. He is uniquely qualified to not just sympathize but ably empathize with human suffering and agony like none other.
The kind of Savior that this scar-ravaged world needs today is not an avenger, not an avatar, not a macho messiah, but a Savior with scars. Edward Shillito, a World War I veteran perhaps closely acquainted with scars visible and invisible, poignantly captures the image of the mangled Messiah:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Mukti, Nirvana, and Moksha are the prominent motifs of Christmas through Indian eyes. For those of us who carry deep wounds, may the gift of Christ birth new hope and comfort, mukti, and moksha. This Christmas might he light up our hearts and homes and dispel evil, darkness, and pain both around and within.
Charles Premkumar Joseph is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Mumbai, India.
(1) Charles Sell, Unfinished Business (Eugene, OR: Multnomah, 1989), 121-122.