Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Reinterpreting the Christmas Mythology

The mythological1 message of the first Christmas has endured for over two thousand years, surviving translation from ancient into modern culture, the attacks of hostile rationalists, the naiveté of biblical literalists, its crass commercialism in the marketplace, the self-serving interests of over-zealous pietists, and its amalgamation with other competitive holiday traditions (Santa Claus, Christmas trees, etc.).

            The story of the birth of Jesus has continued to capture the imagination of the most creative and able talent of Western culture. Under its influence artists have produced many of the masterpieces of our Judeo-Christian heritage (for example, Handel’s Messiah). We are still influenced by the Christmas myth in the twenty-first century. Motivated by the ancient story, we moderns have been led to acts of altruism, self-sacrifice, and charity that surprise even us. It is difficult to react with a bah, humbug attitude when we are bombarded with so much Christmas “magic” in the marketplace at this time of year. There is a grandeur, a nobility, associated with Christmas that stirs the slumbering cords of the highest human ideals. For that reason, the Christmas story has become “authentic” in our culture in a way that historical criticism cannot confirm, or even investigate.

Why do the biblical narratives describing Jesus’ birth still speak to modern human beings? It is not because of their philosophical sophistication, or technical excellence. It is because of the hope they hold forth. There are two different ancient Christmas narratives in the New Testament. One is found in Matthew (1:18-2:23) and the other in Luke (1:5-2:52). Mark does not know a birth narrative, and John has an “enfleshing” story (John 1:1-14), not a birth narrative. Many, even devout church people, have confided that they have difficulty accepting the believability of the miraculous elements in the narratives: virgin birth, angels, star leading the wise men from the east, etc. For many, these have become serious obstacles to faith (except for the “traditional believer”). Such miraculous elements, however, are common in the literature of antiquity, where they are used to validate the careers of great men. Compare for instance birth stories about Asclepius, Hercules, or Alexander the Great.

The real “miracle” of Christmas, however, lies elsewhere, in how it inspires us to treat one another. The Christmas narratives still remain relevant in our day, in spite of their mythic character, even in our Western rational culture. Each narrative expresses deep longings of the human spirit. Their promise rises above the insignificant language boundaries separating denominations, and even religions. They address two basic existential issues that concern human beings, regardless of heritage or creed. All of us want to believe what they proclaim is capable of realization in human life. They speak to our fear of human finitude and the apparent nihilism that ultimately surrounds our very existence (Luke 2:10-12). And they address the very deep human desire for peace in the world at all levels of human existence (Luke 1:76-79).

            Matthew proclaims that the humanity of a particular Jewish child born in a remote village of the Roman Empire, in a naïve and prescientific age, brings a forgiving God near to all human beings (Matt 1:21-23). The existential message of this mythical event is: your finitude need not be feared. Luke holds this mythical event forth as the hope of peace “among people of [God’s] good favor”2 (Luke 2:14). The possibility of being liberated from the terror of our finitude and finding peace in a turbulent world is “good news” indeed. Such hope can bring quiet comfort to every human heart, and is worthy of celebration by all of us.3

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Myths usually involves the exploits of Gods and heroes.

2The translation “people of good will” is less likely.

3This essay began life in the late twentieth century as a Religion and Ethics Editorial in the Springfield, MO newspaper, The Springfield Newsleader. It was later published in Charles W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest? American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 72-73. It appears here again after heavy editing.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Sidelined at the Far End

Many at the far end of things1 likely feel much like Moses must have felt looking over into Canaan and knowing that he would not be part of the conquest of the “promised land” (Gen 32:48-52). God had effectively sidelined him from the next great adventure of his people. In our case, time has caught-up with us in the form of aging’s numerous aches and pains, or serious illnesses and, in any case, retirement many years ago from our former positions of active engagement in the world has made us no longer players but turned us into observers of the world and the momentous events of recent days (wars in the Mideast and Ukraine and Mr. Trump’s positive numbers in the recent polls), and local crises, too many to chronicle in a two-page blog.

            To the credit of the cable news networks they have enlisted as “consultants” a few of our number who are recently retired political, governmental, military, and academic figures whose opinions they consider still current in order to cast light on the events of the day. These once influential figures from the recent past are once again players in our national drama. Too many current occupants of influential positions in government and academia are reluctant to speak candidly about events that eventually affect all of us.

            Most of those who observe the passing of days from the far end are sidelined and feel powerless to influence the course of few things in their individual lives, much less matters of the state and international affairs. What is left to us is volunteering our services locally, if physically able, contributing financially what we can to causes we believe in, and responsibly voting our conscience. Many are like the proverbial figure in John 21:18, dependent on the help of care-givers. Once we ran gazelle-like through life, shared wisdom as we knew it, loved and were loved in return, wept through the years at too many funerals, and saw our homes depleted as children assumed their own places and activities in life. Some of us observe and ponder our reduced worlds from the far end, while others suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia are no longer capable of such introspective reflection, and still others because of physical anomalies and other handicaps look on from beds and wheelchairs. If you run into one of the far-end tribe, recognize that once they were movers and community shakers; and many in spite of their advanced age and infirmities still have much to contribute, which they will willingly and candidly share. At the far end duplicity is not valued.

            The Judeo-Christian tradition has left us a few cogent appreciative comments about our aged brothers and sisters.

Job 12:12: Wisdom is with the aged and understanding in length of days.

Psalm 92:14: [The righteous] still bring forth fruit in old age, they are ever full of sap and green.

Sirach 8:9: Do not disregard the discourse of the aged, for they themselves learned from their fathers; because from them you will gain understanding.

Sirach 25:4: What an attractive thing is judgment in grey-haired men, and for the aged to possess good counsel.

Sirach 25:6: Rich experience is the crown of the aged, and their boast is the fear of the Lord.

Lev 19:32: You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man.

Of course, the biblical tradition does not give blanket approval to the aged just because they are old. Yet these comments show the tendency of the tradition to appreciate the experience of those at the far end.

Alas, there are also other observations as well:

Job 32:9: It is not the old that are wise, nor the aged that understand what is right.

Eccl 4:13: Better is a poor and wise youth, than an old and foolish king, who will no longer take advice.

On balance, it seems that the biblical tradition is realistic. Not all those at the far end have gained wisdom through their experience, but some have, and deserve to be recognized for what they still have to offer.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The “far end of things” is my expression for what I consider advanced old age. Gerontologists disagree as to when advanced old age begins. For some it is 85+, in my thinking it is 90+. Currently this percentage of the population is estimated by the Census Bureau at 4.7 percent of the U.S. population aged 65 and older.,old%2Dold%20(85%2B).