Today is the second day of Christmas. Christians and many other believers, also Muslims, are celebrating the holiday. The main Christmas Day was yesterday, coinciding with the birthday of the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Yesterday, Pope Francis, the new leader of the Catholic Church and other Christians, held his first Christmas Mass. He emphasized the importance of peace, love, equality, and inclusion of the poor, downtrodden, the outsiders and those who cannot fend for themselves; these are cornerstones of any preacher’s message, in any religion at any time – and of any political leader’s message, too.

In today’s article, I shall reflect on some key aspects of faith and religion. I shall try to search for the message we barely see – the deeper meaning behind the ‘Church-created reality’, with all its righteousness of dogma and doctrine, often based on religious and cultural traditions, not on human beings’ search for God. 

The Christmas Gospel is known beyond Christianity and Islam. The Bible says that Jesus, Isa al Masih (PBUH) is the Son of God while the Quran sees him as a one of the great prophets. Even as a Christian, I find the Muslim interpretation acceptable, although many may disagree, often without having considered the real meaning. The ‘honorary title’ of the Son of God should perhaps not be taken literally, and at Jesus’ time, it was often used about persons who lived in the light of God. It doesn’t make God’s messenger Jesus, and his message, less important. The Christian Church’s concept of ‘trinity’, God, Son and Holy Spirit, is difficult to comprehend since it stresses that God is one but at the same time three. The concept may keep seekers of God away from believing.

We should realize that many of the dogma in Christianity and Islam are difficult or even impossible to understand. Many concepts have to do with belief, not with logical thinking and scientific proof. Yet, religious leaders and administrators often talk as if the dogmas and doctrines are to be learned by heart and accepted wholesale. We are not expected to question and think for ourselves. Again, that may rather lead to keeping seekers of God away from him/her, and away from spirituality altogether.

The key concepts in Christianity and Islam are simple and broad concepts about this life, and the life hereafter. Many concepts are similar in all religions; we should remember that religion means to bind together, help human beings to make sense of existential and spiritual issues so that we can live in peace and harmony with each other, and have inner peace. Religion shall not divide and create competition and conflict. Jesus said that true believers shall be recognized because they love one another.

This is the message we barely see in our eagerness to create rules and definitions of what is right and wrong. We have made religions to be sets of outwardly rules, not of inner spirituality and reflection – of being good, doing good and seeking to live in God’s light.

When Jesus said that we should ‘turn around and follow Him’, he wanted people at any time to follow his message of faith, hope and love. In John, Jesus says: ‘No man has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love is perfect in us.’ That means that we must seek God in ourselves, through reflection and prayer, and through asking questions and seeking the right path. In the Corinthians, it is stated that of these three, the greatest is love.

The Christmas message is about love and a new understanding of what is essential in any faith. When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who came as a pure and innocent child, it symbolizes the new beginning for humanity. We must all turn around and do what is right, two thousand years ago and today. When we say that Jesus lives forever that is the real meaning. Christmas – and Easter – has little to do with the physical person of Jesus. We must go beyond the symbolism. It is the message of love that shall live forever.

But when we celebrate Christmas, we have come to take the historical aspects literally, and the many interpretations and traditions established later.

I don’t say that the Christmas celebrations are wrong. I just say that we must reflect on them much deeper than we seem to do. And, indeed, we must not just celebrate Christmas for a few days; all Jesus’ teachings emphasize the new beginning that it symbolizes.

Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his time for having become secular and corrupt, preoccupied with rules and regulations, orthodox rituals and dogma. He tried to show that the leaders had lost sight of the real message, the message we barely see, notably spirituality and reflection, that we must seek God within ourselves. The same criticism, we can direct towards Christianity and other religions today. In many ways, we are yet to realize Jesus’ message, in Christianity and in other religions.

Theological leaders and followers will always ponder on issues of faith; lay and learned try to make sense out of life, its meaning here on earth and the life hereafter. Instead of seeking God in ourselves, we have attached too much importance to the rules and regulations of organized religion. True, some of it is needed. But it should hardly be of the administrative and technocratic volume it has today, in most religions.

Pope Francis has emphasized this. He doesn’t want the church to be known for all that it is against; abortion, same sex relations, women priests, and many other things. ‘Who am I too judge?”, the Pope asks. Rather, he wants focus to be on helping people to seek God in themselves, making religion to be the positive force in our lives, which it is meant to be. We will then become happier and better human beings, and we will emphasize more on doing good for others. We will fight poverty and inequality; or as Jesus said, we should seek to cloth the naked, feed the hungry, care for the sick, and so on. We should find structural change that is politically and socially right for all.  In other words, we should seek to do God’s will in our daily lives. Pope Francis has borrowed his name from St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), and he seeks inspiration from the saint who gave up his wealth and riches to live among the poor and care for the poor. He said that, ’It is in giving, that we receive; it is in pardoning, that we are pardoned’.

This is the real message of Christmas – and Eid – the whole year around. This is the message of all religions at any time and everywhere.

Dear reader, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.