Ever-living God, in the birth of your Son our religion has its origin and its perfect fulfillment. Help us to share in the life of Christ for he is the salvation of mankind, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
'Religion,' to me, is a funny term in its usage and connotations. On the one hand, there's the modern dichotomy between 'religion' and 'spirituality,' which has its truths but is also the source of grave and insidious falsities. On the other hand, there is the use of 'religion' as a genus for various forms of human behavior without much critical account of how they relate to each other. For example, it's fairly easy for me to see how Judaism and Christianity are the same sort of thing, or how Islam is the same sort of thing as the other two, but I have never been able to hear a coherent or satisfying account of how something like Buddhism or Hinduism is the same sort of thing as Christianity, such that they could be put into one genus called 'religions.'
One of our teachers in college, Mr. Woody, whom I remember fondly for many of his doctrines, used to intervene whenever a student committed the vagueness of saying, 'There's a sense in which...' He used to say something like, 'There is also a sense in which a bear and a pig are the same thing, but the purpose of critical inquiry is not for you to tell me that there is such a sense, but to give me an account of what that sense is.'
So before I tried to embark on a reflection on the use of 'religion' in this prayer, I checked it against the typical edition, and there it was again: totíus religiónis inítium perfectionemque. So the question arises, what do we mean by the Christian religion?
I don't think anybody is quite sure whether the root word of religio is ligo, to bind, or lego, to read, pick out, choose, etc. (e.g. from which we derive "elect," for example.) The former etymology seems to have more currency in the Christian tradition. Religion is that to which we have bound ourselves in order to be again where we were meant to be in the first place.
But here is exactly where we must be careful in our reflection. In the eyes of the world, the act of religion is the binding of oneself to a set of practices and beliefs. In the Christian sense, then, the Christian religion would be the binding of oneself to the beliefs, teachings, and practices that come to us from the Sacred Scriptures authentically interpreted by the apostles and especially by their successors gathered in ecumenical council. But this is only secondary. That we are bound to the content of our faith, no matter who true and sublime, is not the primary thing in the Christian religio. That we are bound to its rituals and practices, no matter how beautiful and salutary, is not the primary thing either.
The Chrisitan religio is, first and foremost, about being bound to a Person. Every other aspect of the believed and practiced religion flows from this Encounter. To me, this is what is prayed in our collect today. The birth of Christ is the beginning and perfection of our religion, because the Lord's Nativity is God's initiation of this Encounter. God has willed that humanity will be the site of his revealed Presence in the world, and has given us the means (i.e. faith, prayer, sacramental life) to find ourselves within that divine humanity which is Jesus Christ. To be a Christian, in the strictest sense, is not really to bind ourselves to anything, but simply to consent to God's Delight to bind our humanity to his Joyful Trinitarian Perfection in the humanity of Christ. That is what is meant by the Christian religion.