Sunday, December 25, 2016

The fading wonder of Christmas

I remember when Christmas was an easy holiday to believe.

It was easy to believe as a child, but that's no surprise. The world is already wondrous and strange when you're a child. I once told my youngest daughter that a mermaid named Bathilda lives on the nearby college campus and gets her mail from a turtle, and she believed me. Compared to that, it's a piece of cake to believe story about angels, a newborn baby and three wise men who found him by following a star.

When I turned 18 and awakened to faith in a way that I never had before, Christmas became even more wonderful. For the first time I understood properly what the holiday was about. I started to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation, that the Almighty God too vast to be measured had somehow become a baby who weighed about 6 pounds.

A being who had spoken the universe into existence, whose very word had set the stars spinning through the heavens; brought forth fish in the sea, animals on the ground, and birds in the air; had become helpless, with no way of caring for himself. He had to cry when he was hungry, or sick, or tired; and he had to rely on two confused parents to sort out what he needed and to take care of him.

A God who had dug up the earth with his hand, sculpted a man from the clay, and breathed life into him, now had become a man.

It was amazing. It was inspiring. It filled me with awe. It gave me chills.

Some time in the past twenty-eight years, some of that has slipped away.

I know what some will say: that one day Faith walked down a road she should not have, and there she met Doubt. She fled the highwayman, but not before he had attacked and injured her. If Faith returns to friendlier quarters she is sure to recover, but if she stays where she is, then it's only a matter of time until Faith dies.

Or as someone once put it, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”

The Christmas story is no longer as easy to believe as it once was, because the story of Jesus no longer seems as unique as it once did. There are stories from all over the ancient world about dying gods and god-men, miracle workers and would-be saviors, with similarities to the Christ story.

In one story, widely told and widely believed in the Roman Empire, there was a god who was born in a cave on Dec. 25. Born of no human father, he came to save the people from death and sin. His name was Mithras.

The ancient Greeks worshiped a different god, whose father was the almighty king of heaven. He was killed unjustly, but raised to life again; and ever afterward his worshipers commemorated his death and resurrection by eating bread and drinking wine. He was Dionysus, although the Romans called him Bacchus.

And on it goes.

None of the stories is an exact match for Jesus. Mithras was never crucified, for instance; and Dionysus, while born of a human mother and Zeus, was no virgin birth. Still, for all that, it's easy to see how one story could pick up elements of another, or how religious holidays celebrated around the same time of year or around similar themes would affect each other.

This is a process called syncretism, and it happens all the time. It's how Christmas gained traditions like lighting the Yule log, it's why Santa Claus for a while looked like Odin and still lives up North and hands out presents like Odin did, and it's why Hanukkah has become such a big thing in the United States. Syncretism was one of the things the biblical prophets saw as a tremendous danger to the proto-Judaic religion.

Aside from syncretism, some questions come from the Christmas story itself. The virgin birth is so foundational to Christmas that Tim Keller recently asserted in an interview with Nicholas Kristoff that it's as essential as the Resurrection. You can't be a Christian, he argues, without believing in it.

But while Matthew and Luke both mention the virgin birth, the gospels of Mark and John give it a pass. Luke has an angelic visitor tell Mary what's coming, while Matthew claims there was a prophecy in the book of Isaiah that the virgin would conceive and bear a son.

A 750-year-old prophecy about the virgin birth of Jesus has got to count as a slam dunk, except for one problem. The prophecy wasn't originally about Jesus, and it never specifies a virgin birth. The Hebrew word is almah, which means “young woman.” It could mean virgin, but that's a stretch. There's not a serious linguistic scholar without a doctrinal dog in the fight who considers such a translation responsible. It's not the primary, secondary or even tertiary definition of the word.

The only way Isaiah prophesied that virgin would give birth is if he prophesied in Greek. I say that because the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, uses the word parthenos, and that unmistakably does mean virgin.

So yes, there's a virgin birth promised here, but only if you're relying on a questionable translation, as apparently the writers of both Matthew and Luke's gospels did.

And on it goes. In our imaginations and devotions we often like to blend the canonical gospels together into one seamless whole, but in doing so we overlook important and telling differences among them. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, so his gospel is filled with passages that he cites as fulfilled prophecies. Some of them are quite a stretch, one to the point that no one is entirely sure what he was talking about.

Meanwhile, Luke wrote for a Greek audience accustomed to affirmations from the heavens that presaged important events. His gospel includes an angelic visitor to Mary to declare her pregnancy, and a host of angels appearing over Bethlehem to announce the birth.

Enough of this and the Christmas story not only loses a bit of its luster, it becomes the Christmas stories. They're beautifully told, full of unquestionable literary value, and containing a message of supreme value -- but they're very much stories.

And yet. And yet …

In “Down Among the Dead Men,” writer Alan Moore once observed: “There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse is often closer to the truth.”

The story I tell is this: “One day Faith walked down an unfamiliar road, and there she met Doubt. At first she mistook him for a highwayman, and she fled and hid.

“But Doubt was persistent and found her, and after they had spoken a while she realized that he was not an enemy, but a friend who wanted what she did. And she knew at once that if they continued the journey together, then not only would she make it to the end, but it would be a far more rewarding and satisfying journey than if she had tried it alone.

“So Faith quieted her fears and took Doubt's hand, and together the two pilgrims set out on the road to find their destination. They've had their problems, but they've always faced them together, and they've always overcome them.”

Christmas is the season when we believe that the unchanging Tao changed forever. At the first Christmas in Bethlehem, the eternal Tao became mortal, with a fixed beginning point and an endpoint, even as the line of its existence continues infinitely beyond those points.

The Tao that cannot be understood assumed dimensions, senses, affections and passions. It subjected itself to the same diseases that we suffer, and allowed itself to be warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as us.

Even after all these years, that message still fills me with wonder and it still gives me chills.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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