The Christmas Story
‘Tis the season for Christians to view one another askance over the meaning of the Christmas story.
For most of the lifetime of many of us the story of the arduous trek to register for the Roman census, the exclusion from the inn because of “no room”, the humble birth in a manger in Bethlehem surrounded by loving parents and reverent animals, the angel choirs in the sky proclaiming Christ’s birth, and the visits to the manger of the shepherds and the Wise Men from the East and the birth of Jesus conceived by the Holy Spiritall of this has been taken for granted in faith and rendered most sentimental by decorations in the home and beautiful hymns in church.
Then along comes scripture scholarship with its Historical Criticism and Form Criticism to reveal that all this did not really happen that way. It seems that virtually the same story was told about Augustus Caesar three decades earlier and was the standard way of shoring up belief in an important figure, i.e., by reinforcing his divinity via an heroic birth. Joseph Campbell’s impressive body of work, most notably The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949!) has served to reinforce this and render it inarguable.
Suppose though that the story’s historicity (whether it actually happened or not) is not the point. Would the Universe support the continued existence of a story for two thousand years if it were not intended to serve some useful purpose?
For all that time it is the irresistible draw that the story has on the human imagination that has kept us gathering around that manger year after year. One of the most important aspects of consciousness that the Western mind needs to regain respect for is the human imagination. Einstein is purported to have said that it is more important than knowledge. The role of the imagination in human spirituality was well known to the many shamanic medicine men and women throughout their 50,000 year history (which continues up to this day in spite of the European invasion’s rendering of Mother Earth as a mere commodity to be exploited for profit.) It is found in the Christian mystical tradition in Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises in the 16th century where he asks the one praying to insert him/herself into a Scripture passage taking the part of one of the characters or of a bystander and experiencing the story as that person through the imagination.
In stirring our hearts the manger scene can inspire us to humility, to compassion for the poor, to admiration for Jesus’ inclusiveness in receiving both the lowly shepherds and the fabled Magi, to contemplative desires in the witness of Mary, to parental dedication in the watchfulness of Joseph, to aspiration to noble causes, to detachment in the face of Providence, to going with the flow, to not subscribing to worldly standards and to the great spiritual wisdom in the Wise Men’s decision to “return by a different route”, i.e., to follow different ways, after the consciousness expanding experience of visiting the Infant by following a star. These are all legitimate ways that the Nativity Story becomes real in our lives even if it “never happened” two thousand years ago. Merry Christmas, Christians! And Happy Holidays to all you other Lovers out there!
(Bill O’Brien is a spiritual mentor. He and his wife Linda have lived in Shepherdstown since 2005. firstname.lastname@example.org)