Ongoing Christian existence – discipleship to Jesus – involved a new transformed life oriented in terms drawn from the (developing) story and image of Jesus, whom Christians regarded as their Lord and whom they believed would soon be seen by all to be the Lord of the world, the Son of God, indeed the very incarnation of God on earth.
Kaufman (Jesus and Creativity 5)
Because my religious sensibility is more “sciencey” than mythical, one might wonder about my holiday spirit, because the Christmas story is so mythical.
And by mythical, please understand, I don’t mean “merely imaginary,” nor do I intend to be dismissive. Myth refers to the embodiment of a worldview in a traditional, culturally rooted story.
We skeptics nurtured in a Jesus-way might still make meaning from the Christmas story – see our ideals variously reflected in its imagery.
For me, holiday music really sets the mood, much of it the choir music I’ve learned over the years. Four-part hymns like “Joy to the World” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” I first heard in church, I’m sure, before I could speak, and they still move me deeply. My experience in choirs has also etched choral works like Handel’s Messiah and Rutter’s Magnificat into my neural pathways.
Similarly, great secular songs of the season have settled deep within. There are the “kids’ songs” like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells.” Even better are the sentimental ballads like Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “White Christmas.”
It may be the “bleak midwinter” (in the Northern Hemisphere) and my religious convictions may have shifted, but holiday-inspired music of many varieties still warms my soul.
. . .
This time of year, then, I’m both conventionally and unconventionally reflective and festive – largely because of the story I can’t altogether dismiss, despite my skepticism about the factuality of many of its details. I mean, “a choir of angels”?! c’mon.
We can grant that a man, Jesus – who became a teacher who inspired a religious movement that continues today – was born at some point just over two millennia ago. Decades after his death, when the movement’s devotees compiled and canonized some of the stories that had grown around their legendary founder, it’s no wonder that the most compelling ones – for people with pre-scientific mentalities – would include miraculous elements.
“When was he born?” they may have asked. “Wasn’t it during that time when that comet appeared? Or was it when Jupiter and Venus converged?”
We postmoderns can imagine them imagining other splendid celestial events marking his birth, this worldview-changer.
Traditionally, the gospel story of Jesus’ birth and the accompanying worldview – among those who hold them dear – are presumed to prevail over the secular family spirit and commercialism that have grown around them and been supplemented with other seasonal holidays – ones important to those from other traditions. But I refuse to dismiss other traditions’ similar views and values. These glasses aren’t just half full. They can brim for those who drink from them, just like the view and values derived from Christian traditions can for those nurtured in them. And of course, our cups can spill into each other.
. . .
In any case, we put stars or angels atop our Christmas trees, which traditionally being pines don’t seem indigenous to the Middle East, not like cedars, at least. But as evergreens, pines provide North-European types with images (Druidic perhaps) of something living through winter, the season of death, images of hope converted to everlasting life, immortality – the traditional promise of salvation.
Christmas trees, then, reflect a creative cultural blending I favor. Similarly, scholars have noted that the traditional placement of Jesus’ birth in winter is more likely symbolic than actual. We have historical and even biblical reasons to believe (which can easily be web-searched) that Jesus was born in spring, summer, or autumn – any season other than winter.
But December 25 places Jesus’ birth just after the yearly lengthening of nights ends with the winter solstice (in the northern hemisphere that is). The traditional symbolism has been lost on no one: more light is coming into the world, God’s light presumably, enlightenment, spiritual goodness, love.
I suppose other denominations’ services are similar to the Mennonite Christmas and Advent services usually I attend, where light breaking through the gathering darkness has been the symbolic emphasis, based on ancient prophecies of a coming messiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2).
The image of the child’s poverty, of his commonness, even homelessness, seems potent. These days, the part about the stable – how it associates Jesus to the animals – seems meaningful ecologically. And the most legendary, least historical part of the story, the slaughter of infants that sent Jesus, Mary, and Joseph into an Egyptian exile intensifies the poverty imagery, making the “holy family” refugees. Our attention is directed to the blessed poor, for whom God supposedly has special sympathy, and along with our attention, our sympathies and energies may be directed and developed.
. . .
This, then, indicates who we could be at our best, how Godlike we aspire to be. The idea that God would incarnate as one of the “least,” one of the most needy, turns our attention – makes us aware of how we might be each other’s salvation. In this imagery, we see our ideals – those we project onto God – incarnated, taking human form. And they take the form of one who needs our salvation, needs us to embody these ideals providentially, in the way the story portrays them having taken human form to provide us humans salvation.
Amid this providential tangle, the story reminds us that the incarnated one set aside his godhood to assume this humanity, establishing a theme of sacrifice. The story being so old, and being told and retold year after year, we remember also that in that end, we become the body of Christ, the re/incarnation of our own projected ideals. Here too, as in the Easter story, we find an image of the transformative potential of loving self-sacrifice.
The image of the suffering servant being the exalted one, the normative model, the ideal of doing for others as we would have them do for us, even if they don’t reciprocate was old even in Jesus’ time, and had roots in many cultural traditions – light always spreading amid shadows everywhere. These days, we can still see that we’ve always been responsible for our mutual salvation. Ideally, we can “lay [our] glory by” (self-interested aggrandizement) and humanely harmonize, sympathetically appreciating dissonant worldviews, blending voices to fulfill our combined musical potential.
Hark! We earthly angels sing, “Glory …! Peace on Earth and mercy mild …, sinners reconciled.”