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The Myth of Christmas

December 3, 2005

xmas_banner_content_areaWhen people use the word ‘myth,’ they often mean something that is not true. If a politician is accused of a peccadillo in his past life, he is likely to say that it is simply a ‘myth’ ~ that it didn’t happen. But this derogatory use of the word is relatively recent; it became current in the eighteenth century when reason was beginning to achieve such spectacular results that myth was discredited. Traditionally, however, myth was not regarded as an inferior form of history; it was regarded as more than history. Instead of merely recounting an event, it explored its meaning.

In this fuller, richer sense, the Christmas story can be regarded as a myth. The evangelists were explaining the significance of Jesus’ life; they were writing what the Jews call midrash (‘interpretation’) instead of scientifically accurate history. In St Mark’s gospel, which is usually regarded as the earliest, there is no account of Jesus’ birth and childhood. Jesus appears on the scene as a perfectly ordinary man, the son of the local carpenter, with brothers and sisters who were well known in Nazareth. The infancy narratives are found only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. They are quite different, just as these two evangelists have quite different conceptions of Jesus.

One of the chief purposes of Matthew’s gospel is to show that Jesus, the messiah, had come not merely for the Jews but for the gentiles too. The Messiah, it was thought, would be a descendent of King David, so he has Jesus born in Bethlehem, David’s birthplace and the first people to recognize Jesus are gentiles ~ the three wise men who have come all the way from the east, guided by a miraculous star. But the tragedy of his life is also foreshadowed, when his family are forced to flee the murderous rage of King Herod and take refuge in Egypt.

Luke, on the other hand, wants to show that Jesus came for despised and marginalised people, so in his gospel, the first people to worship Jesus are shepherds, who lived on the outskirts of society and were often regarded with contempt by the religious establishment because they did not observe the purity laws. Luke also gives a more prominent place to women. Matthew is rather a male chauvinist; in his gospel, the angel announces the imminent birth of Jesus only to Joseph and Mary was not consulted at all. But In Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel asks for Mary’s consent; and she becomes a prophetess when she visits her cousin Elizabeth during her pregnancy and sings a hymn that heralds the beginning of a new era, when the poor people will be exalted and the proud and mighty cast down from their thrones.

These nativity stories act are preludes to these two gospels, explaining who Jesus is and what he has come to do. But they are not just allegories. A myth can be defined as something that, in some sense, happened once but which also happens all the time. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, Jesus is revered as the first fully deified human being ~ just as the Buddha was the first enlightened man of our historical period and Nirvana in human form. Just as every man or woman can achieve Buddhahood, Orthodox Christians believe that we can all become divine as Jesus was, even in this life. So the Christmas story speaks of the birth of Christhood in each one of us.

A myth is also a programme for action; they tell us how we should behave in order to achieve the full potential of our humanity. Unless we put a myth into practice, we will not discover its truth. The myth of Christmas has a strong message for our torn and fragmented world. It reminds us that nobody can be excluded from our vision of salvation; it speaks of peace and good will to all men, without exception and tells us to seek the sacred in the poor and disenfranchised: in the refugee and those for whom there is no room in the inn.