I’m going to start by being a killjoy so children might want to cover theirs ears – but no I’m not going to mention Santa :). One common theme I’ve heard from pulpits over the years is how the true spirit of Christmas has been corrupted by commercialism; which is funny because it’s actually the other way around. The Christian festival of Christmas was a land grab. In the early fourth century Christianity was adopted by the Emperor Constantine as the official religion of the Roman empire; and the new state religion promptly annexed the midwinter festivals traditionally kept to celebrate the shortest day of the year & the point where we started looking forward to spring, instead using it to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In reverting therefore to commercialism and debauchery one could be said to going back to the essence of the festivals PRE Christmas :). As for the myth of the nativity itself it is interesting to ponder upon both how little of the detail MIGHT be true but at the same time how much of its essence is timeless.
First the detail. We know that the two prime ‘eye witness’ gospels aren’t interested in Jesus’ birth: Mark’s based on Peter’s memories and John’s, which is either part of the separate Johannine tradition or, as one highly respected scholar suggests, was actually written by the disciple himself. It is in the two secondary gospels (Matthew & Luke) where we see accounts of the birth. Both of THESE gospels are accepted as being an amalgam of Mark’s rendition of Peter’s memories and of the unknown source who recorded Jesus’ talks & teachings. It is important to remember that non of these accounts are biographies but are accounts of faith; and in them both Matthew & Luke find ways of moving Jesus to the place in those prophesies that the early Christians found by combing through what we now call the Old Testament: which may or may not, incidentally, have been the same ones that Jesus was reading prior to his two year mission.
In both we see Jesus being taken back to Bethlehem. In Matthew we see Jesus revealed to the gentiles in the person of the wise men, though they probably arrived up to two years afterwards, and in Luke we see the humility of Jesus’ background represented by the shepherds. We simply don’t know whether these elements were all a back story written in the tradition of Eastern civilization to explain the revealed greatness of a later life. Or whether the otherwise meticulous Luke had gone back to interview Mary and dig out details from her memories. Or yet again whether these accounts were doing the rounds within the early church with or without any factual backing. We simply don’t know and we shouldn’t care; because what IS important is the message they give and the road sign they provide to the nature of God as shown in the mission, death & resurrection of Jesus some 30 years later.
Take the nativity story, utilize the midwinter land grab, let it churn through a barbaric and superstitious middle ages, get the Victorians involved from a cold snowy northern Europe and what do you end up with? Well for example, Wencelas trudging through the snow; holly & ivy, things seen ‘amid the winter snow’ and so on; which is how we arrive at our nativity myth. This is one of those cases however where the details are unimportant. We have enough historical detail about the existence and human effect of Jesus of Nazareth from Josephus and from Pliny the Younger not to need a literal record of his birth. What is special about the myth is the way the figure around whom a new vital religion was forming was seen as coming into being and what it tells us of God.
The accounts we have of the two year mission Jesus embarked upon record the ordinariness of his background, the humility of his approach to the world and his message of love expressed in his theme of The Kingdom of God. This is the man who distils everything down to “love the Lord your God with all your might” and “love your neighbour as yourself” as giving everything of import to his fellow Jews. Strip away Matthew’s wise men, Luke’s shepherds, the Victorian snow, holly & ivy, the medieval Czech Wenceslas and you’re left with myth that reinforces Jesus’ future life and mission: that the fundamental criteria on which everything should be judged is love. It’s love expressed in local terms to your actual neighbor and it is love expressed to humanity in general.
In some ways there’s an interesting parallel with the nativity myth at the beginning of these two gospels and the creation myth at the beginning of Genesis. Both stand out as different from other founding myths. The Genesis story puts God at the centre of the creation process rather than the usual fantastical images of gods at war and the nativity story makes love and humility the essence of that creation. Neither attempt to describe the mechanism by which both occur. They deal with truth and not mechanism
Going on from that the thing that struck me in the run up to Christmas is that a measure of our faith and of the society that we live in is how we treat people. It is not what we believe in or what what structure of church we adopt. Or even what the political parties we individually support believe. It IS how we treat the weak. The myth of the nativity is centred on the sense of weakness. It IS a myth but in amongst it all it points the way to our Christian belief. We are ‘about’ expressing God’s love to the world. There was an opinion piece appearing in the Observer in mid December concerning the way the two extremes were approaching one particular issue affecting us all at the moment, and it’s lines have stayed with me.. “Beyond the practicalities lies the morality. To wish suffering on people who are weaker and poorer than you is disgusting and it’s no less disgusting whether it X or Y that is hoping that the misery of others will advance their own political programme”. It seemed to me to sum up what our approach to life and society should be.