Christmas Day 2004: Reading the Sky
As Morag was leaving to go back to England about ten days ago, she told me she had left me a present on my desk in the bedroom. ‘Just so you’ll have something to open on Christmas morning,’ she said. When I got back from seeing her off to the airport, I noticed the beautifully wrapped package and I noticed it every day thereafter, but I didn’t open it. What’s more, I didn’t even pick it up, prod it, or shake it. I waited, as instructed, until this morning. How different, I’ve been thinking, from years gone by when I would have eagerly ransacked the house to find out what Santa had brought me! Now – probably because I’ve got just about everything I need – the urgent desire to satisfy my curiosity seems well and truly under control. And, of course, there’s also the fact that as one gets older Christmas doesn’t seem such a rare event as it used to be. When I was a child Christmas night seemed like a terrible anticlimax, the beginning of an interminable 364-day wait until the next Christmas Day. How would I be able to bear such a protracted interlude? But now Christmases tumble on top of each other with unseemly and frightening haste. No sooner have I put my Christmas books back on the shelf – which I shall do immediately after this service ends – than I am picking them up again as Advent rolls round once more.
Christmas is different when you get older. And, in addition to these purely subjective experiences of change, there are some objective ones. In recent years there has most certainly been a move to eliminate all specifically Christian motifs from this mid-winter celebration. Coca Cola and Budweiser don’t mention Christmas in their lengthy and expensive advertisements. ‘Holidays are coming!’ they sing, as the festive Coke wagon trundles through the snow; and the ‘people at Budweiser’ wish us, not ‘Happy Christmas!’ but ‘a happy holiday season’. And it seems that a new celebration has taken off in America. It’s not Christmas or Hanukkah – these are far too religious; it’s not even Yuletide or Saturnalia – these are far too archaic. It’s Festivus, first proposed by George Costanza’s father in the sitcom Seinfeld. ‘Festivus,’ he said, ‘is a festival for the rest of us’ – modern people with no particular religious affiliation. He proposed that, instead of a Christmas tree, there should be an aluminium pole around which the family should gather on 23rd December, not for the exchange of presents, but for a ceremony called The Airing of the Grievances, in which each family member in turn informs the others of the ways in which they have disappointed them during the year. And the headmaster of a school in England decided that there would be no traditional Nativity Play this year. Instead, there would be a production of Little Red Riding Hood. As Ronnie Corbett commented on last week’s edition of Have I Got News For You, the headmaster presumably believes that a story containing a terrified girl, a talking wolf, and a disembowelling is more edifying than a story about the birth of a baby!
Christmas seems to be troubling us more now than it used to. We don’t know what it means anymore. There’s lots of scholarly debate about the historical accuracy of the nativity stories, so much indeed that this week’s issue of both Time and Newsweek have lengthy articles on Christmas controversies. Both articles go over the same old tiresome ground: When was Jesus born? they ask. Was it when Herod the Great ruled in Palestine as Matthew’s Gospel tells us, or some ten years later when Quirinius was Governor of Syria, as Luke has it? And was he born on 25th December or on one of about 150 other dates which have been proposed down the centuries. (On Thursday, a learned professor suggested in a T.V. programme about the Star of Bethlehem, that, in all likelihood, Jesus was born on April 7th 7BC.) Was he born in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, and, if Bethlehem, was it Bethlehem in Judea or Bethlehem in Galilee? (I’d never heard about this latter place until last week!)
And so on, and so forth. Enough historical conundrums to keep the scholars in doctoral topics and the rest of us in confusion until the end of time. Why? Because the gospel stories are full of historical inaccuracies, logical contradictions, and scientific implausibilities. But these are not present in the text because of unreliable sources, defective memories, or mistaken observations; they are there to stop us taking the stories literally. On Easter Sunday a few years ago I mentioned what the great Church Father Origen wrote in the third Christian century, and it bears repeating here: absurdities and contradictions appear in the text to force us to look beneath the surface to find the real meaning of the story. This statement should be printed in block capitals in the front of every Bible, and it should be tattooed on the forehead of every student of scripture. Unless we take Origen’s statement seriously we are at the mercy of squabbling historians and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a terrifying situation to be in.
Outrageous and gratuitously insulting statement no. 1: Whenever religion falls into the hands of historians it has the life sucked out of it!
I remember many years ago going with the whole school to see Lawrence Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s Richard III. As we were filing out after the film, one of the history teachers was shaking his head and saying to a colleague, ‘That’s not what happened.’ A shallow judgement indeed! As if Shakespeare, in his great study of the depths of human tyranny and malice was even remotely concerned with something as trivial as what actually happened! Richard was Shakespeare’s vehicle for conveying some insights into the nature of human depravity; Jesus is the evangelists’ vehicle for conveying insights into the nature of the spiritual life.
Outrageous and deliberately provocative statement no. 2: the birth stories in Matthew and Luke do not describe the physical birth of one individual in a cave two thousand years ago; they describe the spiritual birth in the soul of everyone who aspires to walk the path towards enlightenment.
And this spiritual birth is always a virgin birth, because it is not related in any sense (except symbolically) to physical birth. It is brought about in the individual without the help of external agencies. As St. John’s Gospel informs us, it is a birth that comes about, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (1:13). And it always occurs in Bethlehem, which means, in Hebrew, The House of Bread; Bethlehem symbolises Virgo, the Virgin, the harvest sign of the woman carrying a sheaf of corn, (which will ultimately be made into bread). And the birth of God-consciousness in the soul is always, throughout the Mystery religions of the ancient world, celebrated at this time of the year.
And here is outrageous and profoundly heretical statement no. 3: Christianity began life as a Mystery religion, based on the universal myth of the dying and rising God, who, in the myths of Attis, Dionysus, Isis, and Mithras was always born after the winter solstice in late December, when the sun reverses its direction in the sky and light returns to the world.
The newly emerging, gradually increasing physical light of the sun symbolises the birth of the spiritual light in those who have discovered that spark of God within themselves and who acknowledge its latent presence in every other human soul.
In Timothy O’Grady’s beautiful lyrical novel I Could Read the Sky an old Irishman talks about his life as a labourer in England in the middle of the 20th century. This is what I could do, he says:
‘I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs. Make a basket from reeds. Splint the leg of a cow. Cut turf. Build a wall. Read the sky...
But he couldn’t trust banks, wear a watch, drive a car, wear a collar in comfort, drink coffee, face the dentist, or understand the speech of a man from west Kerry. One night he looks up at the sky:
‘To the south is Orion. Across I find the Plough, the Seven Sisters, the Bear. There’s Venus with a very white star above, and Cassiopeia. The wide streak of the Milky Way like an exploded spine, Lyra, Pegasus. I am sitting against the wall of a pig shed smoking a Woodbine and thinking about the mathematics of space....’
We sophisticated moderns, who wear watches, drink coffee, trust banks, and no longer smoke Woodbines, and who never think about the mathematics of space, haven’t got a clue what he is talking about: he may as well be talking like a man from west Kerry! We can’t read the sky, and so we make nonsense of those stories written by people who read little else. Getting a historian to interpret such stories for us is like bringing a plumber in to deal with the electrics. You might be lucky, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
When we learn how to read the sky we realise that Christmas calls upon us to be bearers of the light, to bring to birth the God who lies dormant within the soul. The ancient church called Mary Theotokos, a Greek term meaning ‘God-bearer’, and the Catholic Church, which preserves the vocabulary of these ancient mysteries but which has forgotten their meaning, honours her with that title today. But, as Meister Eckhart said in the 12th century: ‘Mary is blessed, not because she bore Christ physically, but because she bore him spiritually, and in this everyone can become like her’, a sentiment echoed by Angelus Silesius in the 17th century. He wrote:
Though Christ were yearly born in Bethlehem and never
Had birth in you yourself, then were you lost forever.
‘A human being is nothing but a frightened God,’ said Maeterlink in the 19th century and, at a time when we are daily alerted to our collective follies by the media, and consistently told of our insignificance by influential thinkers, never have we, as a species, been more in need of such a tribute.
And our very own James Martineau, who was Unitarian
minister here in Dublin in the 19th century, said: ‘The Incarnation
(God’s presence among human beings) is true not of Jesus exclusively, but of
humankind generally and of God everlastingly.’
As the sun awakens once more in the sky, let us pray for the awakening of the light of God within the soul, because this – not presents, not sentimentality, not families even – is the perennial meaning of Christmas, its mystical meaning, and it has been since the dawn of time, ever since the poets among us started to read the sky.
25th December, 2004