Patricia Casey: 'Jesus' birth gives us all hope that something better awaits'
The Christmas story is one of the few which reverberates along both religious and secular lines. Carl Jung tells us in 'Christ: A Symbol of the Self': "Christ is our nearest analogy of the self and its meaning." This is a powerful tribute to Him, from one of the world's most renowned psychoanalysts.
Even Atheist Ireland had a Christmas get-together (it wasn't called 'Winterval') recently and its photos were certainly receiving some attention on Twitter. Did this group find a resonance with some aspect of the Bible story? Only Atheist Ireland can answer this and no doubt it would say it did not.
Yet it is crucial that we try to understand the origins of our own and group behaviours if we are to be fully psychologically insightful. The absence of insight into our activities, whether they are linked to local custom or through millennia of conditioning, will impoverish us psychologically.
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The interpretation of Christmas among Christians is there is hope and the world and its inhabitants, even in their darkest moments, can foresee a future with optimism. For Christians this is represented in terms of the afterlife. But what is the point of a possible afterlife? After all there is no proof and it may all be fanciful.
In answer to this profound conundrum we can ask ourselves: "What then do we say to the ill, the lonely, the desperate, the bereaved, the persecuted, the downtrodden and the homeless for whom there is seemingly nothing to hope for in material terms in this world?"
Martin Luther King, a revered and insightful man, may have answered this question and solidified for modern people what Christmas means and why the story of baby Jesus is so enduring.
In his book 'A Testament of Hope' he wrote: "Even in the inevitable moments when all seems hopeless, men know that without hope they cannot really live, and in agonising desperation they cry for the bread of hope." The Bread of Hope he was referring to was Christ.
King was right. Hopelessness is a devastating emotion and one we in psychiatry witness every day when the spirit gives up and succumbs to the despairing world view that there is nothing. Suicide can be the consequence.
Overcoming this nihilism means focussing on a world view that began with a baby in a crib, born to a 14-year-old woman and an older man, working class, migrants and poor. This imagery is powerful. Now we know what this baby became as an adult, what his teachings were and the ultimate outcome, has given us cause to be optimistic.
The sheer number of adherents to this philosophy, begun by a young man from such a humble and simple origin is without precedent. It is the biggest lobby/cult/faction/philosophy in the world - call it what you will.
The fact His focus was on the poor, vulnerable and dispossessed must also give cause for hope because if these, the underdogs in our society, hear this story they will know they have not been forgotten. The media is more than conversant with the power of stories in forming opinions and driving emotions, and the story of Baby Jesus, his parents and the visitors bringing gifts, were it reported as news now would be a big story!
The media also knows stories don't have to be true to be potent in their impact. So, whether or not the story of Jesus is true, whether you are believer, an agnostic or an atheist, matters not; the message is in the imagery and the telling through the centuries. If you are a believer, then of course the story has most influence.
The giving of gifts at Christmas is another tradition, reportedly linked to the Winter Solstice in ancient Rome although it died out centuries before the reported birth of Christ. It was only because of the Adoration of the Magi that this practice was re-instated. Also, in the third century the charitable bishop now known as St Nicholas began distributing parcels to the poor. So the gift giving, recapitulating the Magi and St Nicholas, was re-established.
It is for this reason Christmas is the time when charities tap into the psyche of those even only vaguely familiar with the Nativity Story. It is because people feel an obligation to the poor and the needy they give money at Christmas when they otherwise would not.
This care for the dispossessed and weak has also spawned movements not driven necessarily by specifically religious beliefs but by a belief in the innate value of humanity derived from this philosophy.
This includes the anti-slavery movement, pacifism, the pro-life movement and anti-capital punishment groups.
The images and the story surrounding the birth of Jesus, whether you believe them or not, are lasting and penetrating. The giving of gifts in commemoration of the gifts given in Bethlehem makes people feel good, even if only for a few days.
These rituals are likely to continue to be part of societies round the globe as they have for millennia. There is no set of storylines better able to help a dying child or an impoverished family but the hope that something better awaits in the future.
Without hope, there is nothing. And this is profoundly grim.