Readings from the first chapter of Luke included the stories of the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth and Mary’s radical song – The Magnificat. Listen to the sermon here
Last night my brother Alan and I were chatting online about Christmases past. We reminisced about the Secret Sam Attaché Case he got the year I had to settle for a Chatty Cathy Doll. My Brother’s toy transformed him into a secret agent allowing him to peer around corners with a Secret Sam periscope, and take photographs, while the case was closed. Alan’s toy transformed him into a spy capable of holding his own in the world of counterespionage, while I had to settle for Chatty Cathy Doll that could only say a few words when I pulled the string on the back of her neck. We both agreed that girls’ toys sucked. That is until the following Christmas when I talked my Dad into buying me my very own microscope and my brother and I spent the holidays looking at pond scum. We would head down to the pond and fill jars with the scummiest water we could find and then head home to look at the microscopic creatures that inhabited this strange little world. While we were chatting, my brother told me about a colleague whose son died quite suddenly last year. Suddenly, without warning the nostalgia of Christmas disappeared as we contemplated the horror of losing a child. For so many families this and every year Christmas is forever transformed from the simple joys of nostalgia to the painful experience of longing for simpler, gentler times, when all Christmas had to do was jingle a bell or two to bring out the child in us. Life is a complicated mystery. Life is full of unanswerable questions. Life is filled with all sorts of experiences and emotions. Yet, every year we look to our Christmas traditions, stories and rituals to open us to the possibility of all the joy and peace that life has to offer.
I ended our chat by sharing a treasured memory of good old simpler days, when my brother Alan and I would enjoy our very own Christmas Eve tradition of watching the old black and white version of A Christmas Carol; the one in which Alistair Sim plays Scrooge. So, last night, I dozed off with Alistair Sim’s Scrooge dancing in my head and singing, “I don’t know anything. I never did know anything. But now I know that I don’t know. All on a Christmas morning.”
No ghosts visited me in the night, but just like Ebenezer Scrooge, I did dream dreams of Christmas’ long ago. You see, Scrooge wasn’t the only movie that my brother and I used to watch. Alan was particularly fond of science-fiction movies. Sometimes, when he would manage to convince me to watch one of these movies with him, I would complain after just a few minutes in, that the premise was just too unbelievable; I mean really nothing like that could ever actually happen. Alan would remind me that you don’t have to believe them; you just have to watch them, go with the story, see where it takes you.
When you really think about it, many of our best-loved stories never actually happened the way we tell them. Take Scrooge for example; does any one of us actually believe that Ebenezer was really visited by three ghosts? We know that it is a story that never actually happened the way it has been told to us; and yet it has the power to take us somewhere, to move us as we watch the incredible transformation of old Scrooge and we too are moved to keep Christmas well.
One thing I do know for sure, is that you can tell just how good a story is, by how well it takes people somewhere, or if its moves them, or transforms them. Stories that take you places, stories that move us, stories that transform us, these stories we tell over and over again. Really good stories, like the stories about the birth of Jesus have not only been told over and over again for generations reaching back some 20 centuries, these stories have been told in scared places and on holy days.
The stories of Jesus’ birth have been elevated to the category of story to the category of myth. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that myths are not true. Myths have the power to communicate truth. A myth is only untrue when it is presented as a fact. Myths are so much more than just mere facts because myths have the power to tell us the truth about the deepest mysteries of life. Myths are metaphors about the very stuff of life and they have the power to help us to understand what it means to be human.
Joseph Campbell who spent most of his life studying the myths of the world defined myths as metaphors about human life. It may appear that myths only describe great external events like the creation of the world, or the union of the human with the divine, or a miraculous birth, or an heroic act, or an against all odds struggle, or a tragic death or a mysterious resurrection, but myths delve so much deeper into right down into the mystery of life itself.
According to Campbell, myths derive their power to communicate truth because they are really stories about the things that go on inside of us; in here, right now, rather than “out there” somewhere in the distant past. “Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. Deep inside, we long to understand the mysteries of life and relationships both human and divine. On a good day, most of us are functioning at a conscious level and carry around with us baggage that we usually manage to confine to the realm of our unconscious self. Stored within our unconscious self are all our personal memories, our experiences, our desires, our fears, our urges, our compulsions and our deepest longings. Jungian psychologists would tell us that in addition to our personal unconscious self, each of us is also deeply connected to what Karl Jung described as our collective unconscious. Our collective unconscious is the place where the baggage of the whole human race resides. Jung imagined the collective unconscious as our “collective closet”.
According to Campbell, myths are born in the deepest realm of our collective unconscious. The actual contents of our myths are different from one culture to another; but some of the same fundamental motifs that deal with the mysteries of birth, life, death, and certain forms of rebirth and renewal run through the great myths of the world.
The difficulties with myths occur when we get hung up on believing in them as facts. When we refuse to look beyond the metaphors to see the truth to which they point. It’s kinda like standing in front of a painting. We don’t stand there and ask is this painting true or false? Did this scene really happen? These kinds of questions miss the whole point of the artist’s work. We need to approach myths in the same way as we approach art. Does this painting touch me? Does this music move me? Does this movie inspire me? How does this work of art change the way I think about life? Great myths like great art move us, touch us, and transform us in the deepest realms of our being. I believe that the stories about the birth of Jesus have been told over and over again, on holy days, in sacred places and not so sacred places for more than 20 centuries precisely because they tell us something about the Mystery that lies at the very heart of our existence, the Mystery that some of us call God. The birth narratives open explore the nature of our relationship with that MYSTER in ways that have the power to transform how we live in the world.
In the stories of Jesus’ birth, we learn that this Mystery we call God is intimately involved with the stuff of life. In the stories of the child born in Bethlehem, we learn that our God is born among us and dwells among us. Over and over again, within the myth of Jesus’ birth we see people struggling with both the horrors and the joys of this life, and over and over again the message comes clearly and profoundly to us, the message that we long for, in a few simple but oh so powerful words: “Do not be afraid.”
From deep within the MYSTERY we hear “Do not be afraid.” So, here in this place: we declare that long ago, a child of questionable parentage was born under very precarious conditions, born to homeless wanderers, in a place fit for animals. Here, we declare that this strange birth had cosmic dimensions. The night skies lit up, celestial voices and songs were heard by nearby shepherds; why even the planets aligned themselves so as to attract the attention of far off astrologers. Here, we proclaim that this child born in poverty, in dangerous times, under such precarious circumstance is also Divine.
We have the audacity to proclaim this because of all that we have seen and heard in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The stories told about Jesus’ birth could only become myths because the people who first crafted these stories had experienced the power of the life and teachings of the Man Jesus. We know that this Jesus proclaimed a message of justice, love, and peace. We know that Jesus taught a radical new understanding of the nature and character of our God who is LOVE. We know the LOVE of God because Jesus lived that LOVE in his very being. No matter what the people did to Jesus, he loved them. No matter what they said to him, Jesus loved them. Jesus was denied and Jesus loved those who denied him. Jesus was betrayed and Jesus loved those who betrayed him. Jesus was forsaken and Jesus loved those who forsook him. Jesus was tortured and Jesus loved those who tortured him. Jesus was killed and Jesus loved those who killed him.
With his life Jesus personified the Love of God and so, when the people came to tell of this amazing life, they remembered him in the way that their neighbours always remembered exceptional lives and they cast a star in the sky, described an incredible union between the human and the divine, and a birthing filled with challenges, and set the whole thing to music sung by a celestial choir.
Each one of us has a deep desire, a hunger, a longing to be born in a whole new way, and at Christmas, the story of Jesus birth, declares that we can be born to a new level of awareness. For over and over and over again, Christ is born in us all.
The stories of Christmas are not about miracles. The stories of Christmas are not concerned with facts or reason. The story of Christmas is about the LOVE that is God interacting with human life to create in human life wholeness, the ability to live fully, the capacity to love extravagantly, the courage to be everything that we are capable of being. The story of Jesus birth points us toward the truth that lies in the power of LOVE to enable us to live and love and to be.
Jesus of Nazareth lived a God-filled life, a life committed to love. The power of the myths surrounding the birth of Jesus open our hearts to the possibilities of living our lives filled with the love of God because the truth that the Christmas story points to is the very real possibility that each and every night a child is born is a holy night.
The story is so powerful, so true that our various holiday rituals move us beyond ourselves to the heart of the story where we too can awaken to the reality of our God who is Love. By embodying the LOVE of God, Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. The stories of the birth of Jesus remind us that we too are called to embody this LOVE that is God.
We are all born with the power and the potential to touch our world in such a way that it will be a more just and humane place for our having been here. We are born with into the MYSTERY of life with endowed with the capacity to say to one another with our lives and with our love: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid, for the MYSTERY that we call God is with you now and always.