Another Christmas season is passing. I used to look forward to this time of year incredibly as a child, but after about sixteen, it began to mean less and less to me. Of course, part of that is natural – not being Christian (but having a Christmas tree and presents) and not being Jewish (but sometimes having a menorah and latkes and dreidl spinning!) but celebrating the best elements of their traditional seasonal festivals can make you feel a little insincere. When you get past the age where all you care about is the presents, traditions need to have some meaning – a reason for the same things that happen year after year.
I wish there was some meaning left in the celebration of Christmas. It completely consumes this country with a fairy light covered, 70s pop playing, gift wrapped mania that takes hold in late October and doesn’t release its frenzied grip until the New Year. It almost makes me want to run for the hills, or at least a gentler place, that doesn’t see a religious festival as another opportunity to spend and consume to breaking point. Of course, I suppose the one redeeming feature of this time of year, is that at least the collective consciousness of many, if not all, touches on the divine more than usual. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that he embodies this period known as Margasirsa (November-December) so perhaps it’s appropriate, even if the placement of Christmas during this time was more of a tactical move by the Romans.
I’m grateful for the spiritual experiences I’ve been having so far. Last weekend I took part in a Bhagavad Gita reading ceremony at the temple. Hundreds gathered from 9am until after 2pm to chant the entire book, verse by verse. Though it was too fast to read all of the English translations as well, I really felt purified by the experience. When we got to the ninth chapter, I was suddenly struck by the thought that I’d probably never even read this far before. In fact, I realised that I had hardly read any of the Bhagavad Gita in my life – shameful considering I have been born and raised with the knowledge that it is the most sacred and important text in existence. Apart from feeling a little ashamed though, I just felt incredibly soothed and peaceful. To hear the Bhagavad Gita is to hear Lord Krishna’s words exactly as he spoke them. Through the medium of the beautiful Sanskrit language, each verse is music for the ears and the heart. Though by the concluding chapter I had a sore throat from chanting and stiff knees, I understood for the first time the metaphor of ‘bathing in the words of the scriptures’. Refreshed and enlivened, I could finally appreciate how much it could be an enjoyable activity, not just something I should feel obligated to do.
Tonight I also had a beautiful musical experience. My family normally go to a carol concert at our local church on Christmas Eve, to better appreciate the mood of the festival and celebrate along with the larger community of our town. This year we chose to go a little further to the nearby historic town of St Albans. It has a famous cathedral that has been present for many hundreds of years, and we attended the Evensong service, led by the St Albans Girls Choir. Inside, the air was thick with frankincense and they’d decorated everywhere with peacock feather wreaths. It was nice to see small reminders of Lord Krishna in that historic place of worship. Of course, the music equally reminded me of him. It was truly divine. After readings from the Bible the choir sang Benjamin Britten’s ‘Ceremony of Carols’ along with a harpist. Their voices soared and joined in the most exquisite and unexpected harmonies, resounding through the body of the massive cathedral. I felt moved, and was pleased to feel Lord Krishna present there. It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to. It’s all names. We all worship the same God, and the same God is present when our worship is full of true sincerity.
Whoever you worship, have a Merry Margasirsa season and a Happy Chrismukah!
Here’s a small excerpt from a recording of another choir singing the same piece of music. The whole work is about twenty minutes long – if you have time, I urge you to seek it out. It’s astonishingly beautiful and the melodies are unusual and memorable.