Picture the scene. Mary and Joseph are huddled together in a manger surrounded by farm animals. Joseph is drifting in and out of various dreams. Angels fly in and out of the manger singing songs and bringing earth shattering messages. Three eastern kings gather around Mary and Joseph with gifts. Out of the window a large star can be seen in the day sky. Two sheep sit beneath the window having a conversation. One says to the other, “I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn. Let me go through this one more time. The virgin is having a baby. They’re naming him Jesus because of a dream. Angels told them that their baby would become the savior of all humanity. Kings travelled hundreds of miles to find the place of birth like a needle in a haystack because they were led by a giant star moving through the day sky. Now which part of this are you having trouble believing?”
The Christmas story is fantastic in the literal sense of the word. It is mostly fantasy. Which parts of it do you have trouble believing? You’re in good company. This story is as unlikely as talking sheep. The laws of nature tell us that sheep don’t talk, virgins don’t have babies, stars don’t travel across the day sky and then hang like a blip over one home and angels don’t sing choruses. Even if a reliable source suggested that something happened that broke the laws of nature, you would demand evidence and there is little evidence for the details of the Christmas story outside of the Bible which has contradictory details. All in all, the Christmas story is highly unlikely.
But don’t let details get in the way of a good holiday story, right? If you’re like me, you’re torn between the desire to be true to your common sense that is skeptical and your heart that just wants to let the story be a good yarn. The good news is that you can have both. You can question the literal account of the story AND you can enjoy the timeless message of the story. You can put a little reason into the season, and still take a yuletide joyride of inspired meaning. The Christmas story is mostly myth, but the message is real and powerful.
The Power of Myth
The word myth has two related but different meanings. No, myth is not a female moth. The first way that we use the word myth is to say that something is untrue. Do you remember when your parents used to tell you not to swim for 30 minutes after eating? It’s been shown to be untrue. It’s a myth. Along with a flat earth, a 6000 year young earth, and the earth at the center of the universe, these are examples of things people used to believe and we now call myths. A few weeks ago I spoke about the myth of closure and there are many cultural myths like the beauty myth and other media creations. It’s a sign of maturity to discern myth from essential truth. Believing in myths that your mind has decided are untrue is a form of delusion. If there is no evidence for something, or if something is dehumanizing, then it is right to question it. We no longer believe that the earth is flat because of evidence. We don’t believe the beauty myth because it is dehumanizing. I would put the myth of the virgin birth in the same category. It dehumanizes the bodies, sexuality and childbirth experience of women.
The other use of the word myth is to describe timeless metaphors and stories. For example we speak of creation myths and Greek mythology. The point of this sort of myth is to make sense of the world, to dig into the deepest human longings and fears and stretch the boundaries of our limited perspective. These myths could be completely fictional like the creation myths or else some blend of fact and fiction like the Christmas story. Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist found that myths are an innate part of the structure of the brain. 99.99% of what we know comes from what we believe, and what we believe comes from the stories we tell. He compared myth to grammar. The basic structure is the same around the world even if some of the details, like language and style, differ.
There are two opposite dangers in relation to myth. Some people will fight to the death to protect the facts of their stories. As someone said to me over the phone this week, “If the details of the story are fictional, then how do you know the message isn’t also fictional?” Exactly right, I said. Myth is not absolute. The point of myth is NOT to give the answers but to invite self reflection. The point is not certainty but a quest for new perspectives.
The danger at the other extreme comes from a completely rational approach that sees all myth as pointless superstition. Both extremes miss the power of myth. Consider this story about the artist Picasso. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t paint pictures of people “the way they really are.” Picasso asked the man what he meant by “the way they really are,” and the man pulled out of his wallet a snapshot of his wife as an example. Picasso responded: “Isn’t she rather small and flat?”
We see the world through our own eyes. Experience is subjective. Art, music, emotion, mystery- the point is that our perspective on these things and more includes both a rational response and also a visceral or gut level response. Can you imagine looking at a painting in a gallery and asking, “Did that really happen?” or listening to a song and asking, “Was that true or false?” Art, music and emotions elicit something that is true for you or moves you in some way. The experience is true and real. Just don’t cling to the experience because it is sure to change.
Let me bring this back to birth myths. Do you know the story of your birth? Maybe your family has its own birth myths. Here is some of mine. My parents were missionaries in a remote part of Western Australia when I was born. They moved back to the city when I was 6 months old so I have no memory of the place, but many stories have been told. The stories have grown in my mind over time. This is how I recall the stories. The place was so remote that my Dad had to travel for days at a time to visit members of his congregation. If the car broke down on the way, all he could do was lie underneath the car where it was coolest and hope that someone drove past. This was a time and place so deeply racist that my parents were refused service in some stores because their accent gave them away as being from the East Coast.
I was born in a tiny, two bed hospital in this small town in 1968. My mother had one bed, while the other bed remained empty. Another baby was born at the same time as me, but because this was an Aboriginal baby he had to be born in the shed out the back of the hospital. Legend had it that this Aboriginal baby was named Ernie Dingo who went on to become a famous Australian television personality. I told that story to anyone who would listen when Ernie Dingo started appearing on television.
Only later did I discover that Ernie Dingo was born in July of 1956. He was the second oldest of nine children so it’s possible that another one of the Dingo clan was born at the same time as me. The Dingo family was certainly a famous family in this small town.
While the details are muddled, the message has always been clear to me. I was born in a situation of obscene injustice. In 1968 in Australia, Aboriginal children were still being stolen and put into white institutions in an attempt to destroy aboriginal culture. It was official government policy until 1969. I was the beneficiary of good fortune because of the color of my skin in a world that put other people in the outhouse because of the color of their skin. The memory of my birth story lies deep within me, factual or not. It has shaped my worldview and my core values. Racism offends me at a soul level because this is where my mythic memory lies. The difference between the privilege I have enjoyed and the struggle of the other boy born at the same time as me is staggering. One of the Dingo brothers, possibly the one born the same day as me, was killed in a car accident a few years back. Two lives began at the same time and followed such a different path of fortune and opportunity.
The story of Jesus’ birth has a similar effect on me. The version of the story that inspires me, with its muddled mixture of fact and fiction, is the version where Jesus is the underdog and survives against the odds. I resonate with the myth that Jesus opposed the dominant and oppressive culture of his day from the beginning. He challenged it, fought it and ultimately lost his life because he challenged it. The Christmas myth resonates with my own birth myth and fills me with passion to do whatever I can to break down hatred and fight injustice.
The myth around the birth of Jesus has evolved. You can see this even in the different biblical texts. There is no ONE consistent story of the life of Jesus. Each author muddled various details with fiction to make the point they wanted to make. Notice how each author progressively expands the myth.
Paul was the earliest writer and he made no mention of the birth of Jesus. He was mainly interested in the end of Jesus’ life. Mark came next and he also made no mention of the birth story. Not only that, but Mark made no reference to Joseph and only brief and unflattering mention of Mary. Mark emphasized the adult baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels with Mark’s information in front of them and for some reason added in a birth story but with quite different details and facts to each other. John, the latest of the gospels said nothing about a birth story. He wrote at length about the myth of Jesus, the indwelling spirit, stretching all the way back to the beginning of time.
John introduced the idea that Jesus is born mythically in every person across all times and cultures. Jesus modeled what it means to be at peace within yourself and live in tune with your highest calling. The emphasis should be on the potential for every one of us to attain the same peace and harmony in our lives. This is where the myth of Jesus resonates with the myth of awakening that every one of us senses deep within. The myth now evolves beyond one man who lived two thousand years ago to include all people. The myth is universal like any good myth should be.
The ultimate question to ask yourself is whether you are attached to the details of the Jesus story or are you allowing the myth to evolve through you? Consider this story about clinging.
Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept over them all. Each creature clung tightly to the twigs and rocks at the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.
But one creature said at last, ‘I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.’
The other creatures laughed and said, ‘You fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you shall die quicker than boredom!’
But he refused to listen to them, took a deep breath and let go. He was immediately tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks. Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he moved with the current.
Downstream the creatures who didn’t know him were amazed. They cried, ‘This is a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! This is the Messiah, come to save us all!’
And the one carried in the current said, ‘I am no more Messiah than you. The river wants you to be free, and all you need to do is let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.’
But they cried even more, ‘Saviour!’ all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.
Let this Christmas be a time of liberation for you. Let go a little. You don’t need to cling to Jesus as your savior. Instead, look where he was pointing you- to your own innate ability to let go and swim with the current. The myth surrounding his life resonates with parts of you that you might have forgotten but they are very much alive and awaiting your attention. Inner peace is born in you when you let go and allow your mythic memory to guide you to the life you are destined to live. It’s the Yuletide joyride. Namaste.