Almost a decade ago Julie Clawson wrote about her daughter’s unbending belief in Santa Claus. Julie had tried to explain to her daughter that Santa wasn’t real, but she wasn’t buying it. When she told her four-year-old Sunday school friends, they all disagreed with her. Which convinced her that her parents were wrong. But at the same time Julie’s daughter concluded that the Christmas story was too far-fetched to be real. So Julie found herself “stuck with a preschooler who believed in Santa but not in the Bible.”

THE MYTH OF CHRISTMAS

The Christmas story is wonderful mythology but terrible history. This should not be a controversial statement. The first clue that the birth narratives are not history should be that two out of the four Gospels don’t even mentioned the birth of Jesus. The second clue should be that, apart from Mary, Joseph, the pregnancy, and Bethlehem, the accounts in Matthew and Luke have no shared elements. None.

The Christmas story is wonderful mythology but terrible history. Click To Tweet

The final clue should be that we know that many of the elements we include in our Christmas celebrations just aren’t historically true. Jesus was not born on December 25th. There is no stable mentioned in Scripture at all. There is no trudging from inn to inn and finding no room. In fact in all likelihood Mary and Joseph didn’t even consider inns at all. They stayed with friends or family and the guest room (which is a better translation of the word from which we traditionally get ‘inn’) was already occupied, so they stayed with the animals. I’m not knocking the way we frame the Christmas story in our time. On the contrary, I love it. I’m just saying we shouldn’t pretend that what we celebrate at Christmas is what actually happened historically.

But what if we enter the Christmas story as mythology. In this sense a myth is a story that is not factual but is true. It doesn’t give us history or verifiable fact. It gives us meaning and wisdom. I believe that if we allow the Christmas narrative to speak mythically, it has a much deeper impact and can connect us with the Divine Presence and Purpose much more profoundly.

This post will be in two parts. This first instalment will focus on Matthew’s account. Next week I will approach Luke’s narrative in the same way.

MARY

In our traditional telling of the Christmas story, Mary is a virgin. It amazes me that Mary’s sexual status has become such an important feature for us. Neither Luke nor Matthew actually state that Mary is a virgin. Matthew implies it in his quote from Isaiah 7:14: “Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel.” The word in Isaiah in the original Hebrew does not mean virgin, but young woman. However, I’m going to skip over all the theological issues, and potential problems, around Mary’s virginity and go straight to the mythology of an unmarried mother giving birth to the Messiah.

Whether Mary was the victim of rape, or Jesus was conceived some other way, it seems that the writer of Matthew is making a point about God’s use of socially unacceptable women. Matthew’s genealogy, which comes just before the birth narrative, includes five such women: Tamar (who tricked her father-in-law into having sex with her), Rahab (the prostitute of Jericho), Ruth (the Gentile widow who seduced Boaz), Bathsheba (with whom David committed adultery—although her name isn’t mentioned), and finally Mary.

WHAT DOES THE MARY MYTH MEAN?

I believe there are two significant messages to be drawn from this genealogy and Mary’s story. Firstly, the writer of Matthew undermines all attempts to claim that some people are more acceptable to God than others. He goes to great lengths to show that God’s saving work included many people, most shockingly women, who did not fit the religious standard of ‘cleanness.’ But, secondly, the writer seems to be making a point that the reign of God that Jesus inaugurated is about protecting women who have been victims of patriarchy and gender-based violence.

Before the end of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, five women who would have been judged, condemned, and rejected by decent Jewish society have been given pride of place in the lineage of the Messiah. If our Christmas celebrations do not similarly seek to protect and uplift marginalised and abused women in our society, we have missed the point of this festival. In this time of lockdown, when so many women are at greater risk of domestic violence, we do well to speak out against gender-based violence, to support any initiatives that protect women from predatory men, and to make a special effort to celebrate and love the women in our lives.

Before the end of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, five women who would have been judged, condemned, and rejected by decent Jewish society have been given pride of place in the lineage of the Messiah. Click To Tweet
JOSEPH

Joseph is a much less significant character in the Gospels. He appears only in the first couple of chapters in Matthew and Luke and then he disappears from the story. In Matthew’s narrative, Joseph is described as a dreamer. Matthew is clearly connecting him with the dreamer of the same name in Genesis who saved the world from famine and ensured that food was distributed fairly to all people.

Joseph is responsible for giving the baby the name Jesus (in Hebrew it is Joshua, connecting with another ancient leader in the Hebrew Scriptures). Matthew also connects Joseph’s decision to marry Mary with the prophecy in Isaiah, which is about God saving Israel from threatening global superpowers.

WHAT DOES THE JOSEPH MYTH MEAN?

When we consider these elements, it is clear that the writer wants his readers to know that there is a divine meaning to the birth of Christ. This ordinary baby is the Messiah who will bring God’s reign into the world. The birth narrative begins to show what this reign of God is like:

  • It seeks to protect and uplift the poor and weak;
  • It includes foreign outsiders (the magi who visit in chapter 2);
  • It threatens the powers-that-be (Herod, the king who tries to have Jesus assassinated);
  • It brings hope and liberation to people (the prophecy about Rachel weeping that Matthew quotes in chapter 2 is part of a prophecy of hope and restoration from Jeremiah);
  • It supports and includes immigrants and refugees (as Jesus’ family were when they fled to Egypt);

All of this means that when we sing “Peace on earth! Goodwill to humanity!” we are completely aligned with the message of Matthew’s Christmas story. Historically there have been moments when we have seen this and have managed briefly to embody the kindness, sharing, and fairness of Christ. The Christmas Truce of World War I is just one famous example.

When we sing “Peace on earth! Goodwill to humanity!” we are completely aligned with the message of Matthew’s Christmas story. Click To Tweet
LIVING THE MYTH

This year, perhaps more than ever, we don’t need to cling sentimentally to Christmas as a historical event. We don’t need fights about what the correct greeting should be in this holiday. We need to enter into the world-changing myth of the Christmas narrative. We need to try, in small and practical ways, to protect those who are most vulnerable in our families and neighbourhoods. We need to stand against gender-based violence and uplift women in whatever ways we can. We need to support immigrants and refugees. And we need to stand against racism, sexual shaming, and the abuse of power.

If we can do this, each in our small corner of the world, then we can truly have a happy Christmas even in this difficult time in history.


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