At this year’s Christmas, as the familiar patterns unroll themselves once again-the music, the tinsel, the stress of shopping, the crowded supermarkets with their glut of food, the parties, the strain of forced family togetherness when often the chemistry isn’t there, the religious rituals with their words of peace in a world that knows no peace, the joys, some real some feigned, the griefs of those somehow left out will there be any difference from a year, two years, ten years ago?
Will we have come any closer, in spite of the Nativity scenes, the carols, the masses, the sermons or the “smells and bells” of packed churches, any closer to the real meaning beneath it all? Or will it be yet one more telling of a simplistic tale that is charming in its rusticity, quaint in all its various “props,” yet utterly remote from one’s deepest fears, longings and hopes, remote from the grit and pulse of life as we and every other sojourner on Earth must live it daily?
A vast segment of humanity has been telling itself this same story of a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem for many centuries now; peace and goodwill towards all the clan of Homo sapiens. But nothing has changed. Bethlehem itself has become synonymous with violence. Just now, as the Christmas fervour is being driven towards its annual climax, once-Christian nations are waging war against other countries.
What is the deeper story that has somehow been twisted wholly out of shape and so layered over with trite or fraudulent wrappings that the real gift is rarely ever envisioned let alone observed and gratefully received? Is there, was there ever some precious thing of matchless beauty, power and grace at the very heart of Christmas something-with flaming potency to transform our lives, our world? The answer is a resounding, all-embracing yes, but it’s not won by glib or lazy wishful thinking. Mere repetition of literalistic tales and pious traditions can never get us there. One can go through the entire process by rote or on automatic pilot, and miss the “many splendoured thing.”
This brings us to what many may find to be a tough medicine or even drastic surgery. But if one is to pass beyond the childish and the external to the core of what Christmas is all about, it’s an essential step. What one has to realize first of all is that the story of the birth of Jesus is a myth. No, not a fairy tale, not a legend, not a piece of fiction to be seen through and dropped at puberty or before, but a spiritual myth-in other words, a truth so vast and so important to our human condition that it can only be told in the most profound language of all, the language of symbolism, allegory and metaphor.
As the late authority on myth, Joseph Campbell, repeated time and again, myth is infinitely more transformative and true than history any time. This cannot be stressed enough. We use myth as synonymous with that which is untrue when ironically its fundamental meaning in all the deepest wisdoms known is the total opposite. What is historical is fleeting, open to a hundred viewpoints-for example, who really killed JFK and why? But the meaning of the myth is always eternal.
The truth is that the myth told at Christmas is the oldest myth known to us. The birth of a divine King’s son, into humble circumstances, amidst threats to his life, accompanied by angelic greetings, rejoicing shepherds, and visited by three Magi while a spectacular star shines overhead, is almost as old as humanity. It was known in ancient Sumeria and Egypt many thousands of years B.C.E. It belongs to every religion and clime. It’s an eternal story.
This is a mythos that links every one of us to the Ground of our being-to God or the Ultimate-but also to Earth and the solar system, to all of nature, and thus to one another. What it’s about is the evolutionary “moment” in human development when Spirit entered into the animal kingdom and “became man,” that is, a humanoid capable of self-reflective intelligence and so of moral choices. That’s the point of “born in a manger” in a stable surrounded by beasts. The divine enters the animal at a place where, symbolically, animals “eat” (French manger) and God’s Logos or Word finally becomes “flesh.”
Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 (birthday of all ancient gods), three days after the winter solstice because in the myth, the rebirth of the sun on the twenty-first symbolized this fact of Incarnation (in + carnem = in the flesh) better than any other cosmic reality.
The mythos of a Virgin Birth is also a common motif of the past. Dozens of examples from that period can be cited. What is really being said by it has nothing to do with contradicting natural biology. Rather, the meaning lies in the truth that whatever else this birth is, it is God’s act. It says that Jesus was being sent as the preeminent Agent and Word of God. The Virgin Birth was not known to Paul, Mark or the author of John’s Gospel. It was clearly not part of the earliest preaching in Acts.
The Christmas mythos tells us that Jesus was born of God and that ultimately we all are too. Unlike him, however, the majority of us have not yet consciously had this Virgin Birth, or awakening in our souls as to what or who we have been created to be. In the birth of every baby, the Word is “made flesh.” That’s the ultimate meaning of Christmas.
The Christmas myth is your story, and that of your partner or child, your sibling or parent, your neighbour, and the people of Iraq and other nations experiencing turmoil. It’s the story of our human family. God dwells in every heart. The joy of Christmas means awakening to this fact.
Tom Harpur from Living Waters