Monday, December 21, 2009

Giving Birth to New Meaning in The Christmas Story

A woman takes her 16-year-old daughter to the doctor. The doctor says, “Okay, Mrs. Jones, what’s the problem?” The mother says, “It’s my daughter. She keeps getting these cravings, she’s putting on weight and is sick most mornings.”

The doctor examines the girl, then turns to the mother and says, “Well, I don’t know how to tell you this but your daughter is pregnant. About 4 months would be my guess.”

The mother says, “Pregnant?! She can’t be, she has never ever been left alone with a man! Have you darling?”

The daughter says, “No mother! I’ve never even kissed a man!”

The doctor walks over to the window and just stares out it. Several minutes pass and finally the mother says, “Is there something wrong out there doctor?”

The doctor replies, “No, not really, it’s just that the last time anything like this happened, a star appeared in the east and three wise men came over the hill. There’s no way I’m going to miss it this time!”

The notion of the virgin birth divides the Christian world. On the one hand, some believe that without a virgin birth, Jesus would be less than divine, the story would be phony and God would be a liar. On the other hand, some find the whole idea of a virgin birth laughable.

During the week my former church in Auckland launched their new Christmas billboard. You may think we’ve caused a stir with some of our signs. Just stop and imagine this message out on M104. It’s a giant board with the image of Mary and Joseph lying half naked in bed. Mary is looking up longingly. Joseph is looking crestfallen and defeated. The caption above reads, “Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow.” The intent behind the board was to lampoon literalism. Not everyone found it funny. Within 24 hours it had been vandalized and cleaned up four times, attacked by a knife wielding woman and torn down. People all over the world are discussing the billboard, and are divided between those who feel liberated by poking a little fun at a belief that has been oppressive and those who are offended that their beliefs are being made fun of. What do you think?

Does it Matter?

Maybe you think that a belief in virgin birth is quaint but harmless. Live and let live and if people want to believe in such things, let them at it. Is it as simple as that?

It depends what you expect from the story. Is the Christmas story a quaint tale of a painless birth, surrounded by cuddly animals, winged angels and babies who don’t cry or the socio-political reality of a young couple, petrified, escaping danger? Most of us don’t live sugar-coated lives. The sickly sweet fairytale Christmas story offers little to the stark reality of our lives; teenage pregnancies, ethnic genocide, religious rivalry, family betrayals, gender inequality and personal anguish.

The Christmas Mary, instead of being the epitome of purity and otherworldly submission, should be revered as symbol of persistent courage in the face of oppression. The Christmas Mary is honored every time an abused wife, a displaced Sudanese woman or a frightened teenager is empowered to find liberation. The Christmas Mary is pro choice in the broadest sense of the word.

Relate this to a current day situation. The Nelson amendment to the health care bill would have restricted federal funding for legal abortion procedures. It was recently defeated in the Senate. Do you know on which day it was defeated? It was defeated on December 8, the day Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Perfect! I imagine that Mary would be pleased with that result even if the Catholic hierarchy was not pleased. The Christmas Mary empowers women to take charge of their own bodies and sexuality.

The Christmas Jesus, instead of being the bearer of salvation from the cares of this world, should be revered as the social radical who lived in the trenches of despair. The Christmas Jesus is honored every time you find new courage in the face of hardship, every time society bends down to give those who are struggling a hand up. The Christmas Jesus is a liberator in the broadest sense of the word.

Maybe the literal belief in a virgin birth is not harmless after all. It might lead to an other-worldly, impossible view of humanity and sexuality that leaves both Mary and Joseph unsatisfied. Mary is given an impossible standard of purity, carries all the responsibility, and Joseph is completely emasculated.

Never forget, especially at Christmas time, that your body is the home of God. Maybe that’s the point of Christmas. God is born in the roughest stable of human experience. God is manifest in all beautiful expressions of sexuality. The miracle is not an escape from the realities of life, but finding deep courage that endures in the midst of life’s struggles.

The Power of Myth

Joseph Campbell is one of the most influential scholars of religious mythology. He gifted the world with the beautiful idea that even though myths never happened, they always happen. To put that in relation to the Christmas story; it never was but always is. Christmas never happened the way we have inherited the story, but Christmas happens all the time.

This is what Campbell said in relation to myth and virgin birth-

“The beauty of myth lies in its power to induce life-changing inspiration in its audiences. We should not neglect the symbolism of the contemporary story; the shark’s virgin birth calls on us to be reborn in our compassion for other species and their environment, lest they fall along with our wisdom.” – Campbell, in PBS interview with Bill Moyers

Last year year, scientists confirmed that female hammer head sharks can reproduce without any male involvement. I believe there are a handful of species that are capable of virgin births but no mammals. It had me thinking that the whole Virgin Mary story is a little fishy. Virgin births are the domain of hammer head sharks and mythology. In Egypt, Horus was born to a virgin. In Phrygia, Attis was born to the virgin Nama. In Greece, Alexander the Great, was born to a virgin. In Tibet, Indra was born to a virgin. In India, the god Krishna was born to a virgin. In Siam, a wandering sunbeam caressed a girl in her teens, and Codom was born. Buddha was said to have been born out of his mother’s side. A nymph bathing in a river in China was touched by a lotus plant, and the divine Fohi was born. My personal favorite- Lao Tzu was conceived when his mother was impregnated by a falling star. She gave birth to him out of her left armpit while leaning against a plum tree. Now that’s a story. It’s far more imaginative than the modern day myth of the cabbage patch.

There is no reason to take the story of the virgin birth literally. Or as one of Mary’s high school classmates said, “Virgin? Yeah right! I went to school with her.”

The Hebrew word usually translated as “virgin” is more accurately read as “young girl”, recently married but not yet pregnant. It’s possible that the New Testament word “virgin” was a mistranslation of an innocent Hebrew word meaning “newlywed”. There is no reason to believe that Jesus was literally and physically born of a virgin. But the symbolism of the virgin birth is inspiring and empowering. Here are three ways of reinterpreting the virgin birth tradition. I’m sure there are many more.

1. Stories about the birth of heroes are often symbolized with virgin birth language. Campbell wasn’t the first to see the virgin birth in a non literal way. Some early Gnostic Christians believed a form of the modern saying “we are spiritual beings on a human journey.” They believed the soul exists before birth and after death, that all people had a spiritual origin that came before mother or father. All births are miracles that transcend gender and intercourse.

You have heard the phrase, “when you were a twinkle in your father’s eye.” The intent behind the phrase is that your life began when your father had the look of romance in his eye, about 9 months and let’s say 7 minutes before you were born. Or in other words at a time when you were just a thought. There’s a verse in Jeremiah that says “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” It’s a breathtaking idea that each of us was known before we were born; a twinkle in God’s eye. Your life has an essence that transcends your parents and any action on their part. As parents, remember that-

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life, longing for itself. They come through you but come not from you. Though they are with you, they belong not to you. You can house their bodies but not their souls. For their souls live in the beyond.” – Kahlil Gibran

All births are virgin births in the sense that you can strive be like your kids, but you cannot make them just like you. They remember more about the pure light of divine consciousness than you do, so tune in to their wisdom.

Matthew’s story of the virgin birth emphasizes that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, not by God. The Holy Spirit was a feminine word and concept in Greek language. Two distinct energies exist in each birth, both feminine energies but distinct. On the one hand, you are intimately connected to your baby, attached in an umbilical way. At the same time, you are just bringing more life into the world, and you can’t possess that life. The notion of the virgin birth reminds you of the part of your child’s life that you can’t control; you simply help it on its way.

2. Dominic Crossan offers a socio-political interpretation of the Christmas story including the virgin birth. Many of the terms we think of in relation to Jesus were first used for the emperors; divine, son of God, redeemer, savior. Before Jesus was even a twinkle in the gospel writer’s eyes, all these terms were used of Caesar Augustus. It was also widely claimed that Augustus was descended from the virgin goddess Aphrodite-Venus and the Trojan hero Anchises. Augustus’s Trojan ancestors were said to have been led from Troy to Italy by Venus’s western star.

Imagine how radical it was to craft a story around the birth of Jesus that made all the same claims as Augustus. They were taking the identity of a Roman Emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. This was high treason. It was as if to say, “one has been born who represents a new form of power through service rather than selfish gain.”

Here is the truly radical part of Crossan’s theory. Augustus wanted sole rights to this high status.

The gospel writers were suggesting that Jesus had divine authority that was higher than Rome’s authority.

So there is another possible reading of the Christmas story.

3. Carol Pearson offers yet another approach to the virgin archetype. “The term virgin meant a woman who was “one in herself”, who owned herself. She could be sexual and have children, but she could not be someone else’s property”.

Virgin may be an archetype, symbolizing openness and self responsibility. No one owns you, your body, your sexuality or your dreams. You are a child of God, a co-creator of life, and choice is your divine responsibility to live authentically and serve the greater good.

The virgin is willing to journey into the unknown, with wide eyed wonder. The divine child in each one of us can only be born from the virginal inner place, removed from any monkey mind of conditioned thinking or social control or patriarchy. The virgin has no limitations or scarcity.

Meister Eckhart captured the profound truth of a virgin birth: “A virgin, in other words, is a person who is free of irrelevant ideas, as free as he was before he existed.”

Maybe virgin birth is a metaphor for consciousness. You are born of a virgin if you approach every moment as a new possibility for wonder and service. As Mary Oliver said- “When it’s all over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.”

The Birth of Hope

Maybe virgin birth is a metaphor for surprise. This community has surprised me many times in the past six years, and never more than in the last six weeks. Every time it seems like our options are running out, you respond with optimism. When we reintroduced the notion of membership in the community and hundreds of people said “yes” I saw a Christmas miracle. When people come to me and say “thank you for giving clear expectations for giving. Where can I sign up?” I see the birth of Christmas hope. When people come to me and say “what can I do to help?” I see a Christmas miracle.

Christmas miracles are all around you, if your mind and eyes are open and your heart is prepared for surprise. Life is evolving and never static. No one owns you, and no human quality fully defines you. You are so much more. You are the soul of life itself. You existed before time and you live on after death. Now you are a spiritual being with a few short years on this human journey. How are you going to make them count?


For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups)
1. In what ways do you think the literal version of the Christmas story is dangerous or oppressive?
2. What does the Virgin Birth story mean to you?
3. Where do you see Christmas miracles?
4. In what ways areas of your life are you hoping to see the birth of new hope?

1 comment:

C. Marie Byars said...

The Greek word "parthenon" leaves no doubt that Mary was literally a Virgin. There are many of us Christians who accpet that Mary was a Virgin yet do not think she had a painless birth different from the rest of us mothers. (i.e. the portrayal in The Nativity movie. And many of us who have very conservative views of the Bible & Jesus as a literal Savior from sins who aren't patently conservative in all of our secular politics.