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
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.