The Day the Myths Came True
A century ago a group of influential churchmen began to tell us that the stories surrounding Christmas were myths and fairy tales. The educated world had been discovering the stories of other religions, and the great myths of the world were being published. It became obvious that some of the features found in the Christmas story were similar to the stories told by the world well before the birth of Jesus, 2,000 years ago.
The myths told stories of how the gods came to our world in human form. Other myths told of supernatural births. In fact it seemed like every really famous person was credited with an unusual birth, if not quite a virgin birth. Those same stories told of magicians and witches arriving for the birth of important babies with extravagant gifts.
These stories sounded very similar to the birth stories of Jesus. So they began saying, “the stories are not true. They didn’t happen this way. They are the inventions of faith. A kernel of fact has been embellished into a supernatural story.”
They were right in their observations. They were not right in their conclusions. The stories surrounding the birth of Jesus are similar to the stories told in legend. The Christmas story has all the earmarks of myth. The world has told such stories as far back as we can trace human history. The names are different in different cultures but they tell all their stories of the gods coming to our world. They tell of their heroes being born at propitious moments according to the stars, and being conceived or born in amazing circumstances. They also go on to tell of gods who died and who rose again. It is easy to conclude that the Christmas story is just one more myth.
The Nature of Myths
It is the conviction of those that study myths, that these are not simply fairy stories from the world’s fiction. Myths are not simply the product of creative writing classes. Myths spring from a nation’s search for the meaning of life. Myths are attempts to explain the significance of things that are mysterious. The myths are the acknowledgment that there is more to life than the things we can touch or taste or smell. There is something or someone beyond us, that gives significance to our lives.
Myths are told and retold down the centuries to express the hopes of people for this life and the life beyond. The myths express the dreams of people who have had to eke out an existence in difficult times, but who sense there is more to life than daily drudgery. Some psychologists would tell us that myths spring from the yearnings of the subconscious. That is one of the explanations why the myths from around the world are so very similar. The hopes and dreams and yearnings of people are similar and so the stories come out very much the same.
The Day the Myths came true
Now all those stories were reflections of the hopes and fears of all the years. They were the wishes and longings of the human race. They took place, however, always in never-never land. They were supposed to have occurred “once upon a time in a land far far away”. That is because they were less the facts of the past so much as they were hopes for a future.
But the Gospels tell us of a day when all the old myths began to happen in the middle of human history. Jesus was born when Herod the Great was King of Judea, and Tiberius Caesar was Emperor of Rome. He died during the days when Pontius Pilate was governor, and Caiphas was high Priest. It all happened in the nation of Judea in very real places such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The birth of the Son of God to a young woman took place in fact, not in fiction or fantasy.
Why would God want to do that? Wouldn’t that confuse people? How could they tell the difference between history and myth, if they sounded so similar? It may be that God wanted to demonstrate the deep significance of this historical event by tying it into the message of the world’s great myths. He patterned this event on the patterns in the great stories of human longing, so that when people heard the story of Jesus Christ, it would resonate with the age old and familiar longings that had been theirs. When they heard the story they would know that Jesus has come to fulfill their hopes and dreams.
The Fulfillment of Israel’s Hopes
When St. Matthew writes his version of the Christ event, he uses a phrase throughout the early chapters: “This took place to fulfill what was written by the prophets….” Matthew understood that Jesus came to fulfill the dream that the nation of Israel had nursed for centuries. When he says that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures, he does not mean that a few isolated texts were predictions of this moment in history. He means that all the longing of faithful men and women, all the hopes of all the prophets came to fulfillment in Jesus.
The Fulfiller of the World’s Religions
But Jesus was more than the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. He was also the fulfillment of the dreams of every race and people. In the sacred writings of the world there is expressed a longing for redemption. The people of the ancient world were unsatisfied with their versions of god but did not know where to find something better. It is why St. Paul points out to the people of Athens the altar to the unknown God, and introduces them to the story of Jesus Christ who has come to fulfill their hopes too.
The Fulfiller of Our Hopes
But Jesus came not to satisfy only the dreams and hopes of an ancient world, but of all persons throughout all time. In North America we still hope that life would have meaning, that what we do might be significant, that the relationships of our lives would be healed, and that for the inner turmoil of mind and heart we could find peace. The promise of the Christmas song remains; “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in him tonight.”
Think It Through…
Some might think that comparing the story of the birth of Jesus to the world mythologies, is too dangerous a connection to make. What do you think? For further reflection on the ideas behind this article you may want to read the writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Next time you are in conversation with people of other faiths, listen for the language of longing that is often present in their speaking about their own religion. Instead of presenting a Jesus that discards their dreams, you may want to present a Christ that fulfills their national and ethnic yearnings.
For The Small Group Leader…
What false hopes and dream dominate North American culture that Jesus can never satisfy? Is it possible that these wishes are simply distorted reflections of deeper yearnings that he is willing to fulfill?
Published in Light and Life, September-October, 2002.