Towards a post modern view of the Christmas story
Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-14.
Christmas is, at the same time, the most beautiful of festivals, and also the most puzzling. For, at this season, the church tells the story of a virgin who gives birth to a child, of angels coming to earth to announce the good news, of a strange heavenly body, star or comet, which certainly does not appear to obey Newton’s laws of motion.
We, by and large, are the children of the age of enlightenment, the age of reason, of the modern period, in which knowledge has come to be equated with scientific discovery, and history asks the question “what really happened?” It is small wonder that we are dominated by these ways of thinking. They have, for five hundred years driven western society. Not only that, but they have been spectacularly successful. Who among us would want to live in a world without electricity, without modern means of transport and communication, without modern medicine?
But the benefits of modernity have come at a price. The externality of life has become so all-important and all-consuming of our resources and energy, that we have lost contact with innerness, with our own innerness and the innerness of the whole of creation. From being a place of awe and wonder, the world and its creatures, including our fellow human creatures, have become an object of exploitation for our profit and benefit.
The reason why Christmas is puzzling is that, in line with this whole way of western rational thought, we come to the foundational stories with the question “Did it really happen?” “Were there really angels and shepherd and kings, was there a star, is a virgin birth possible?”
I suggest that to place such questions against the story of Christmas is part of the price we have paid for modernity. With our concentration on rational discovery, scientific method and historical accuracy, we have lost all understanding of the role of narrative in our lives. The reading of novel and poetry becomes a leisure activity, music becomes entertainment, story is something for children, legend and myth become synonymous with untruth. Both theology and popular thought have applied these modern canons to the Biblical stories, and one of three things has happened…
- For the vast majority, the stories of the Bible have become simply meaningless and irrelevant to their world. At Christmas time even Santa Claus has greater credibility that Matthew or Luke.
- For the liberal theologians, the mythical and legendry elements have been pruned out of the Biblical narrative, leaving bare historical facts, which are interesting, but of little worth celebrating.
- In fundamentalist thinking the myth and legend have been translated into rational fundamental fact, cute if we are talking about shepherds, kings and angels, (just been to see William and Thomas in school nativity)but dangerous if we try to make Biblical story into political controlling agenda. Fundamentalists may feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values. During a battle it is very difficult for those fighting to appreciate the other persons position.
What is clear is that modernism is reaching the end of its dominance of our world, of its intellectual, social and political life. We are realizing that the concentration on the external, together with our de-valuing of story, myth and legend, has led to a deep impoverishment of our lives.
In post-modern thinking we are beginning to realize that the important question is not “Did it really happen?”, but “Is it true?” As we try to begin, again, to fill that deep hole of spiritual yearning which modernism has left at the heart of our human experience, we ask whether the Christmas story among others, can bring us to a deeper and fuller humanity.
The end of modernism has begun to teach us that rationalism is a thin veneer on the surface of our humanity. We have begun to realize again that the roles of art, music, poetry, prose, drama and dance, together with story, myth, legend, religion and psychology are intertwined as they take us beyond that thin surface of our lives. As we begin to value again their place in the search for truth rather than fact, they will be our companions in that twin journey into the depths of our own being and into the heights of the infinity and unity of all being. This is the double journey, which is so often today described by the word “spirituality”. It is I think no co-incidence that a widespread renewal of interest in spirituality comes with the demise of modernity.
A journey to the depths of the self and to the heights of heaven is a journey fraught with many dangers. Those who suggest that it is simple and open to anyone to try, are not unlike those who would suggest we set off to the North Pole on skis or across the Atlantic in a rowing boat, without charts, compass or support system. The church community in all its breadth exists to offer the guidance needed through the many pitfalls of the journey of the spiritual life.
I would suggest three starting points for the journey of the spiritual life, which I hope more and more of us will want to undertake in the coming years.
The first is an encounter with story, with text, with the Biblical story. The Bible is a collection of stories, which chronicle humanity’s encounter with itself and God, and God’s encounter with humanity. I think the time has now come to enter into the story as story and to find there, the echoes and guideposts of our own spiritual encounter and journey. That we become part of the story, (here Eugene Peterson’s book “Eat This Book” is helpful) Thinking of the Christmas story, the angels, the shepherds the star and the wise men, the baby born in the stable all relate to how we find the message and the meeting with the one who gives us new birth, new depth of meaning, new direction and new mission. We meet our God in a text, which takes us beyond fact and offers us insights into truth. Here I find my own new birth, my own vulnerability and experience my own humanity.
The second is to directly encounter God, this we can reach through inner stillness in the centre of our lives. Christian have meditated on the Word for thousands of years, stilling their minds and discovering again the sense of peace and joy and wholeness that can come from the discipline of meditation. I am reminded of that old carol “It came upon the midnight clear”
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world hath suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
The third is the meeting with God in the context of the meeting of the community. Our story is maintained through ritual and liturgy. Today, and each day of the year, we tell the story in word, in action, in poetry, music, art and dance. Through the telling of the story together, we affirm our community, we find new faith and hope, and again we find a new sense of the mission and a vocation of humanity i.e. to be human in our de-humanizing world – to be the image of God.
At this Christmas season we hear a story of journeys, the journey of Mary and Joseph, the journey of the shepherds, the journey of the wise men, the journey of angels and even of a star. May I invite you on a journey, a journey to the discovery of our true selves, a journey to find a new sense of humanity, which our world so desperately needs.