Finding Ourselves in the Story
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
The hardest sermons I had to preach in my 38 years of ministry as a parish priest were at Christmas and Easter. People wanted to hear the old old story, and they didn't like you messing with it. It was difficult because, as literal stories, they not only beggar our ability to believe, they have almost nothing to say to us.
If Jesus was born of a virgin, it's a curious thing, a scientific anomaly, but it doesn't affect me. If Jesus rose from the grave, how nice for him, but how does this change my life? We have to do mental gymnastics to make sense of these claims, as preachers do every year when Christmas and Easter come around.
That's why I'm more interested in the mythic dimensions to these stories, rather than the literal ones. These stories may or may not be literally true, or even historically accurate. But they do tell a kind of universal truth. As a First Nations saying goes, "It may not have happened just like that, but every word of it is true."
As to Christmas, what could a virgin birth, an angelic visitation, and a guiding star possibly have to do with me? Unless that birth is viewed mythically, as a wondrous tale that illuminates not just the birth of a divine Saviour, but some truths about our human condition as well. Seen this way, Jesus' birth was a sign of hope in a dark world, as each new birth is; it was attended to by the angels, as all births are; it changed the world, as every birth does.
Read this way, the story shifts. It becomes a lens through which we see our own miraculous arrival onto the world's stage. I was a sign of hope too, when I was born; the angels watched over me just as they did Jesus, and they celebrated; my presence, like his, has changed the world, forever. Now that's something to chew on over Christmas dinner.
The Jungian writer James Hillman says literal thinking is the enemy of mythical thinking. You make a story literal--like insisting that the virgin birth was historical fact--and you squeeze all the life out of it. There's nothing more to say. But mythical thinking--well, there we are, right in the middle of that story, right down to the depths of our soul.