At this time of year we often bemoan the way our society has lost the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas, frequently caching our grief, despair, anger, etc in these terms. Well, the identity of the foul fiend who extracted Christ from Christmas has been revealed at last. But before I can expose the culprit, it is necessary to understand the power of myth and how it works.
For me, Christmas seems to possess a power to transcend mundane physical reality, transporting Christians and non-Christians alike to another, better place where peace and goodwill are the characteristics. The power of this season is embodied in a Christmas story understood not as history, not as theology, but as myth.
The term, myth, is often erroneously applied to a belief or story that is not true. In fact, myths continue through the ages because they embody eternal truths. A real myth conveys a story about every person in every generation; it expresses or evokes basic truths about our humanity, which makes it trans-cultural, trans-religion and trans-generational.
Sometimes a myth may become manifested in a particular historical occurrence. When history, which is true for only a specific moment in time, becomes a myth, it becomes true for all times. The Christmas story is such an event. If we localise it in time, and celebrate it only as a piece of history regarding the birth of a man names Jesus, we rob it of its mythic content and, therefore, steal its ability to express an important universal truth. But if we recognise the myth, it will come to life within every person in every culture in every generation.
The Christmas myth is about incarnation: the birth of the Divine in human form or, in non-religious language, about realising one’s full human potential. Although the birth of Jesus is the vehicle for the story, Jesus becomes a mythic character as the story plays out in our lives; that is, Jesus represents a part of every human being.
Similar birth myths exist in other cultures, e.g. Mythros (Greek), The Changing Woman (Navaho), Quetzalcoatl (Aztec). One only has to change the names to see the same familiar characters: a virgin, a divine birth, a protector (Joseph), a destroyer (Herod), the visitors and, of course, the Holy Spirit. The various stories are similar because they all tell a common story buried in every human psyche.
It is perhaps time that Christians acknowledge that the Christmas story is not the sole property of Christianity, and that Jesus’ birth is not really the “reason for the season.” Here I do not make reference to the fact that Christmas has been high-jacked by commercial interests (although it has); rather, Christmas is, and always has been, a manifestation of some of the best of the human spirit. That the church was able to catch hold of its coattails to help spread the Christian message has been a positive thing, and the Church has certainly made a valuable contribution to Christmas, including its name. I do not want to belittle this contribution, but I think that we trivialise the story and miss the depth of meaning of the occasion if we try to limit Christmas to the story of the birth of man, even a man such as Jesus of Nazareth. In doing so, the story is de-mythologised and robbed of its power; so, in a real sense, those who have done this – and the church must share a large part of the blame – have effectively taken the Christ out of Christmas.
Paradoxically, by including all faiths, even atheism, among those who are part of the Christmas story, we effectively restore the presence of the Christ. Other faiths may give this presence a different name, but as Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In understanding the Christmas story as myth, a universal story that goes beyond any religion, it is possible to re-discover its power for us and in us; to make the Christ archetype in our souls – everyone’s souls – come alive.
To enter the myth of the Christmas story is to recognise that each of the characters in the story is present within you. Somewhere, in a virginal part of your psyche, having found refuge in a quiet natural place, away from the crowded inn, lies the seed that is waiting to be fertilised by the Spirit, which will spring to life as an incarnation of the Divine in you.
There will be a King Herod there, also; that threatened part of you who wants to prevent the new birth. Opposing the Herod will be a Joseph, who will be needed to support and protect the newborn so that it can grow to maturity.
This drama goes on in every person, repeated generation after generation, even day after day, as the ‘Divine Impulse to Be’ yearns for recognition. This birth of God in you is indeed cause for rejoicing, witnessed by the lowly and exalted alike, and celebrated in heaven by choruses of angels.
H.J. Richards wrote: “The birth of Christ…means that from this moment on, the indescribable mystery that we call God can only be found in someone entirely like you and me. What the Christian is really trying to say at Christmas is, ”I believe in Man.”
The salvation of the world rests upon each one of us who lives out the Christmas story in our own lives, choosing to give birth to God, bringing peace and goodwill to all people.
A blessed new birth to you!
There was no room in the inn
Will you make a little manger
In your heart?
Into this warm and lighted haven
Will you bring someone cold
And lonely and friendless?
Thus love will be born again
Beneath the star!