Scripture: Luke 2: 1-20
Is the Christmas story true?
What does it mean to say that the Christmas story is true? To ask this question involves thinking about what we mane by ‘truth’. The Oglala Lakota Indian Black Elk said, “I don’t know if it really happened that way but the story is true.”
In recent weeks I have been thinking again about this question: whether the Christmas story is true, and in what sense. An angel tells a young girl that she will have a child that is fathered by the Holy Spirit. Her baby’s birth takes place in a humble stable. Another angel tells a group of shepherds that the holy child has been born. They go into Bethlehem and discover that everything is just as the angel predicted.
What do we mean when we say that something is true?
The Gospel author Luke wrote about Jesus eighty years after his birth. There were no newspapers or TV, no internet, so no-one could recall the actual details — the so-called facts. But early Christians believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. They passed stories about him by word of mouth. Eventually, Luke wrote them down. However, Luke was not a dispassionate chronicler. His ‘agenda’ was to convince people that Jesus was the Son of God. To use a modern phrase, that was “his truth”.
Does this mean that we should dismiss the Gospel Christmas story about Jesus’ birth is bunk? Pretty obviously, I am going to answer my question with “no”. But why? First century society and culture were completely different from ours. It was a world of myths and miracles. Sadly, we have lost the power of myths to tell truths. We insist that all our truths are literal, rational, and verifiable.
A different example: the myth of the Garden of Eden
Most people, unless they read the Bible literally, take the story of the Garden of Eden as a myth. The first man and woman disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They got caught. God punished them by throwing them out of Paradise and making them mortal. The point of this story – its truth (if you lived 3000 years ago) is that sin – disobeying God – matters. The story isn’t a lie; it projects a different kind of truth. It explained why there is evil in the world, and why eventually we all die. Humanity still wrestles with these questions
Many modern Canadians tend to scoff at the story and its explanation. Science tells us that humanity did not begin when God placed a single man and woman into a perfect world. Yet, as Lakota Indian Black Elk said, “I don’t know if it really happened that way but the story is true.” And a very contemporary parallel to the Biblical story is that humanity has seriously messed up the natural world (Paradise). Just look at the reasons for climate change and the pollution that single use plastics have caused – to name but two. I might reasonably call these the results of human sin.
The documentary El Sendero de la Anaconda
My mind travelled along this road this past week when I watched the documentary El Sendero de la Anaconda (The Trail of the Anaconda). Wade Davis, the principal narrator, is a Canadian botanist. He travelled to the Colombian part of the Amazon jungle. There, he teamed up with anthropologist Martin von Hildebrand, who was studying the cultures of indigenous communities along an Amazon tributary river.
The documentary explained how the land and the river were sacred to the indigenous people. Their destruction or desecration would annihilate the people’s culture. What especially caught my attention was the following comment. “How do you think of a mountain? Is it just a pile of rocks or is it sacred? If it’s a pile of rocks, why not tear the mountain apart to mine its minerals. But if it is sacred, so are the minerals. They should stay with the mountain.” That’s one difference between myth and modern facts.
Incarnation, a central tenet of Christianity
The central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In the Christmas story, we call his birth Incarnation, which means “fleshiness”. Thus in the myth, story, or whatever you wish to call it, the shepherds looked into the eyes of the newborn Jesus. They saw the face of God looking back at them. The Christ-child was the Messiah, that their people had anticipated for centuries.
Bishop Clement of Alexandria in Egypt, who lived a century after Jesus, was the first to say, “God became human [in Jesus], so that humanity might become divine.” Therefore, the Christ-child would have seen – in his unfocussed and hazy eyes – the face of divinity in the eyes of the shepherds, despite their old and probably dirty clothes, and their odour of sweat and sheep. This idea is of mutual divinity. It is entirely different from later Church teaching. That is that humans are born sinful. We cannot escape our sinfulness. According to that theology, only Jesus, the perfect man, was born free of sin.
The older understanding of the relationship between humanity and the divine is much more positive. We can see the divine in the eyes of any human baby, who has not sinned. As we go through life, we fall short of our ideals. But our original perfection is still there, waiting for renewal by repentance and God’s grace. The phrase “to be born again” really means restoration to that original ideal state. It’s different from rebirth into something inconsistent with an original sinful state. In the more positive view, Christ’s Incarnation is the model for each one of us, for we all carry the divine essence.
The Huron Carol tells the Christmas story with different symbols
Someone once said they didn’t like the lovely Huron Carol Twas in the moon of wintertime because “that wasn’t the way it happened”. They meant that the ‘way it happened’ was how Luke told it. But the carol had meaning (myth) for the Huron people, just as Luke’s version had meaning and myth for 1st century Jewish people. Both use symbols and images that would be familiar to their culture. A “lodge of broken bark” not a stable. A “robe of rabbit skin” not swaddling cloths. “Hunters not shepherds”. “Chiefs from afar” bringing “fox and beaver pelts” not Magi coming from afar with gold and spices.
How might Luke have written his story for 21st century Canadians? I imagine office workers in Toronto hearing the song of the angels: “Jesus your king is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.” At once they leave their offices, without even powering off their computers, and take the GO train out to Milton. They find the new-born baby lying in his mother’s arms in a townhouse on Derry Road, and bring gift cards from stores in Milton Mall. That’s surely too improbable and prosaic. Yet it’s essentially Luke’s story.
Would a bunch of ordinary shepherds have really heard an angel choir? Would they immediately have left their sheep (their jobs) to run to Bethlehem? What about a bunch of Huron hunters, searching for food in the dead of winter, or a group of insurance workers at their computers in Toronto? Each story seems wildly improbable, but that, I think was Luke’s point. The improbable had happened; the Messiah had come!
I don’t know if it really happened that way but the story is true
Luke’s objective wasn’t to describe the literal truth of his story of shepherds and angels, but the sacred truth. Jesus was the Messiah. So of course his birth was special. Heaven and earth became one for a magical moment in a stable in Bethlehem. We have told and retold this story for 2000 years in the belief and hope that heaven and earth can be one in our own time. As the Lakota Indian Black Elk said, “I don’t know if it really happened that way but the story is true.” That’s what myth means.
That is why the Christmas story makes the most sense to me when I see the humanity of the Christ-child as a metaphor for each of us. Like Jesus, we were born in the usual messy way. Like Jesus, we are all part of God’s good Creation. There a spark of the divine essence in each one of us, however imperfectly it seems to be expressed. That, to me, is the real miracle of Christmas.