Christmas

How can we approach Christmas, once we accept that the birth narratives in the Bible are not based on historical fact.

Christmas

​The Christmas gospel readings report wonderful, fantastic events. A virgin, visited by an angel, is told she will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and give birth to a son. Believe it or not - she agrees to this. When the boy is born, a choir of heavenly angels sing joyful melodies in the heavens. Shepherds on night duty leave their flocks untended as they hasten to pay their respects.

​Eastern astrologers follow a bright star, which unlike any other star beams its searchlight on to a single cattle shed. These astrologers, helped by a star with a unique focus of light, and a devious king, find the tiny child, and give him exotic symbolic presents that signify his divine status and future destiny. The family then become asylum seekers in Egypt, and so evade the slaughter ordered by the wicked king.

These stories are the fabric of our childhood. In the rich majesty of the readings and carols from King’s College, Cambridge, they evoke the little town of Bethlehem, seen amid the winter snow. Historical research, and critical study of the Bible, show these stories to be pious fictions. They are part of a long tradition in the ancient world of boosting the stature of a significant person with tales of miraculous happenings to them. The loss of such wonderful illusions can be shattering: leaving faith an empty shell. But wait – the truth of these stories lies not in their historical veracity – but in their power to inspire. The truth of any scripture (of any faith tradition), can only be assessed by the lives of the people enriched and changed by its teaching. When the beauty, simplicity, and wonder of scriptures inspire us to practice in our own lives the highest, the noblest, the most compassionate and just, that we can envisage - then those scriptures contain profound truths, with transforming power. The Bethlehem stories can inspire joy and tenderness; love, faith and hope; compassion, hospitality, and generosity; a resolve to overcome evil with good, and to work for peace on earth, goodwill to all people. I return now with a glad heart to the gospel stories. I can value afresh the beautiful carols and Christmas music, the superb paintings depicting these gospel scenes, the poetry and sermons which extol these events. I can even treasure the kitsch little donkey and the manger full of hay. For just as psychotherapists use the classical myths of ancient Greece and Rome to explore profound insights into human nature, so we can use the Hans Christian Anderson-type stories of the infancy narratives of Jesus, to explore profound spiritual, social and ethical insights. We can explore and ponder the many small details of the narratives, and reflect on ways of behaving, relating and nurturing our relationships with other people. We can be refreshed with thoughts of the joys of giving and receiving, of visiting and being visited, of offering shelter to those in need, and providing sanctuary for those in danger of their lives. We can also be touched by a spirit of awe and wonder, of joy, compassion and service. Our spirits can be sustained by the fellowship and nurture of our shared worship, of friendships, and of family life, as we are open to that which is divine in the ordinary events of life.

Comments

1 On 30/11/2012 Liz Vizard wrote:

I really liked this Michael and it is beautifully expressed. I too am beginning to return to the delight of these stories and to stop worrying about the fact that they are not factually true (did most adult Christians ever really think that?)
I agree with Dave Tomlinson when he says faith is about the gut and not the head. As long as we don’t insist that people believe (assent to) stories (myths) literally, we are doing no harm and actually enhancing human experience. If we deny the value (deep truth) of the narratives, we do harm, as we discount the benefits you describe here.

2 On 19/12/2012 Richard Holdsworth wrote:

In frustration with my church (near Philadelphia, USA) for refusing to discuss progressive spiritual views, I have started an independent forum. Its aim is to make ancient values more relevant to our current age. I am inviting anyone who would like to explore and promote such issues to join my mailing list by replying to my email.

This is the Christmas bulletin

Merry Mythmas

Archaic myths are accurate; but they are not true in obvious ways. The Christmas story, for example is not accurate in a worldly way. The rustic Christ feast was moved to mid-winter during the fourth century to accommodate the pagan festival of Winter Solstice. The date, the animals and the angels form a sustaining myth. But fear not! For myths help us to understand the crucial underlying significance of events. Actual events are to myths what a police report is to a novel. The report is logically accurate, but a novel rings truer deep down. A good novel reveals more than it tells; and so we willingly suspend disbelief about the narrative in favor of more meaningful revelations. And this is the profundity of myths.

So what is a myth? Even the elusive semiotic bard, Roland Barthes is relatively clear about the work of myth. “Myth is…defined by its intention…much more than by its literal sense…it purifies [things], it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification.” The quote is from an essay entitled Semiotics for Beginners, by Daniel Chandler (http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem06.html), who goes on to explain, “Like metaphors, myths help us to make sense of our experiences….They express and serve to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something….” 

Thus, an atheist can believe the Christmas story, and a Christian might not believe it, depending on a literal or symbolic reading. In either event it certainly goes back to the ancestral Winter Solstice—back to when Neolithic people feared winter starvation; back to archaic universal beliefs that still build sturdy faiths; up from genetic memories that continue to confirm hopeful expectations; into what W.B Yeats calls “our deep heart’s core”.

But what do we find in this deep heart’s core? Well, we rediscover our own simplicity. We tap an innocence that loves recurring stories with inspiring themes of perfection, decline, death and then resurrection. Clerics, atheists, psychiatrists and scientists often depend on these themes. Childhood stories repeat them, and they are the basis of Genesis and Christmas. We need such themes to make sense of life, and thus stay sane. The themes that I am discussing begin with Once upon a time. That time is in a perfect symbolic “summer”, e.g. The Garden of Eden (innocence); the good old days (wishful thinking); or any “honeymoon” period of life, when everything seems to be just fine. Then comes chilly autumn, and the honeymoon period is over. No examples needed; the sad nights become longer, the air colder, and frozen winter begins to set in. But before winter hardens, we can celebrate a version of Winter Solstice.

In the ancient world of Winter Solstice, rural populations preserved their harvested resources. And they celebrated with the hope that their store would sustain them until the resurrection of spring. In our psyches, too we can depend on a nourishing harvest: a harvest of wisdom that is gathered from the recurring themes of ancient myths. These intuitive myths are preserved and stored in our deep heart’s core. They thrive when celebrated; we must not stifle them. They sustain us to endure the winter of an awful discontent. And their inspiration awakens hope’s renewal, with the insights of our spring.

Is the Christmas story true? You may as well ask, “Does the pope wear a hat?  Lol—Cheers! Have fun…Rejoice!

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