As Legends Go: Conceiving of a Holy Nativity


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When I was a boy growing up in mid-nineteenth century Middle America, public Christmas displays were a lot less complicated. Churches representing various denominations of the Christian faith communities circled Bronson Park in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. There, pathways lined with colonnades of giant candy canes led from the four corners of the park to a life-sized nativity scene of the holy family. And each year, the ACLU representing atheists battled City Hall, attempting to have the overtly religious display removed from public property. The controversy became so routine that it became part of the time-honored holiday tradition.

Nowadays, in San Jose, California, “Christmas in the Park” has become a community-wide holiday celebration; where anyone and everyone from every possible persuasion is invited to join the festivities. This ranges from the local chapter of Atheists; to the Satanic Temple with their own unique take on the traditional Christmas tree, adorned with Baphomet’s goat head at the top. Its no wonder Donald Trump says it’s okay to say “Merry Christmas” again. Since it means so many different things to so many different folks, it may have become sufficiently non-descript that it’s the only thing upon which our divided nation can agree.

For anyone who might still want to hold out that Jesus is still the reason for the season, the obvious question is why? If there’s any lingering claim to Jesus’ divinity by way of a virgin birth that could actually result in some sort of redemption for this weary old world, I might be all for it. But that’s an ancient hope, borne of a fanciful legend, whose fruition will take more than singing some beloved old carols, all the while debating whether or not to spike the eggnog.

Last month an anonymous bidder paid $450 million for a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci’s. The artwork depicted a very holy looking Jesus with his hand raised in a blessing gesture, and entitled “Savior of the World.” Ironically, it was subsequently revealed that the religious piece was purchased by a Saudi prince from a remote branch of the royal family who’s presumably Muslim. It should make a nice “Christmas” gift.

But nowadays the savior comes in all forms. A member in my own community who happens to be a hockey enthusiast has his neighbors puzzled and amused by the holiday display in his front yard. Instead of a manger scene, Jesus is portrayed as a goalie in front of the net, successfully warding off a slap shot and saving the day. The scoreboard above the net says it all: “Jesus saves.”

If only we could return to where it all began, one might wish; when one wishes someone else a “Merry Christmas.” But to do so would require ignoring the irksome fact the annual observance was first a pagan observance in various forms, before it was co-opted by the same religion that came up with Easter in a similar way. So, since that’s actually not possible, we might do well to instead figure out where we wish we might go from here.

The birth of Jesus is a little known fact. That is, we know virtually nothing except the fact such a historical figure existed, and thus was born; that, and the fact that various birth legends soon arose to prop up subsequent theological claims about him. In the canonical gospels, Mark and John have no interest in any birth fable, miraculous or otherwise; since it is not useful to their message.

On the other hand, the early Jewish-Christian communities represented by Matthew and Luke on the other hand spin nativity tales of Jesus’ birth; as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Matthew goes to extreme lengths to construct a tortured genealogy that will somehow place the infant in the lineage of David. And, of course, the odds that the historical Jesus was born on December 25th are about 1 in 365. But because these stories are part of canon of scripture that has been subsequently deemed to be somehow sacred, they are literally accorded “other-worldly” status.

Like the Bible itself, however, these fanciful legends are of purely human construction. And if you were to consider these nativity tales in any other context, the sanctity of the “holy family” isn’t all that respectable. Mary has a child out of wedlock, and Joseph’s initial inclination is to want nothing to do with a young woman who has gotten herself pregnant by someone else. It might bear repeating that the original Greek word used in the gospels means simply young woman. Subsequently the Latin ‘virgo’ is used, which translates as ‘virgin.’

The whole notion of gods and humans co-creating with something as unnatural as a “virgin birth” is a fairly standard plotline. It takes the humblest of human origins and imagines superhuman greatness, elevated to miraculous and divine status. Consider another legend wholeheartedly embraced by its true believers in our own day and age:

A humble cabin near Mt. Pecnu in the remote mountain region of North Korea along the Chinese border is believed to be the miraculous birthplace of Kim Jong Il. While historians assert he was actually born in Russia, true believers cling to a near-sacred legend. As a guide at the holy site explained it to a Western (CNN) journalist recently,

“So it was really cold, and the weather was not normal. But somehow the day the General was born the strong winds stopped all of a sudden. The sun began shining through. Everything was bright, and a quiet calm took over. The flowers bloomed, and in the sky was a particularly bright star.”

The reporter asks if the story is only a legend, or if it really happened that way.

“Oh, yes,” she replies, “it actually happened. It’s not a legend. Our general is really a person who heaven sent to us. So he changed the weather too. It’s a true story. We can’t say it’s only a legend. Nature actually transformed itself to announce the birth of our general to the whole world, blessing it. That’s how it happened.”

Not to put to blunt a point on it, but there’s another legend I grew up with that I’ve recited so many times I could say it by heart:

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this … a Savior.” (Luke 2:8-11)


“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (Matthew 2:9-10)

There are those of us who have long since found the need to replace the “Christ” of Christmas past with something a little more credible and down to earth. As legends go, the gospel birth narratives are charming tales that are to be taken no more literally than the subsequent legends that depict the resurrection of one who was born, lived and died.

That Satanic Temple in San Jose? The first of its seven tenets of belief reads, “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.”

Seeking the “true meaning of Christmas” – whether a nativity tale of any sort, or something as generic and universal as wishing everyone peace on earth, goodwill to all — is a perennial quest. And, it’s not unlike the quest for the first Christmas of that historical figure, his teaching and way of life.

It does not require attributing other worldly, sacred status to a birth that was no more holy than anyone else’s. But all the more important with the life we have, and how we live it.

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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