Matthew 2:1-12, Acts 17:22-34, Isaiah 9:1-7
The World’s Myths
I have long been a lover of the writings of C. S. Lewis (Narnia Stories, etc) and J. R. R, Tolkien (The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings). Not only because they wrote great stories, and not only because they took God seriously in their lives and in their work, but because as a young Christian they helped me make sense of the Good News about Jesus.
I had spent 6 years as an atheist, vigorously arguing against the unbelievableness of the Christian story. I, like C. S. Lewis who was an Oxford Atheist, found the Christian story incredible and silly. The stories surrounding Christmas sounded just like the myths and fairy tales I had grown up with. The educated world had been uncovering 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 very similar to the stories told by the ancient world long before the birth of Jesus, 2,000 years ago.
- Some 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 or a supernatural birth.
- These heroes were born at propitious moments with the stars bearing witness from the heavens.
- Then the fairy stories told of magicians and witches arriving for the birth of important babies carrying superb gifts.
- Then these same myths told of miracles being performed by their super-heroes,
- They also told of dying and rising and ascending gods, who went to Hades to do exploits in the underworld, then returned to Mt Olympus.
This made many people suspicious. These myths sounded very similar to the stories surrounding Jesus. So the conclusion was reached: the stories about Jesus are probably not true. They didn’t happen the way they are described. They are the inventions of faith. A kernel of fact has been embellished into a supernatural story. That was the conclusion of many. It was easy to conclude that the Christmas story is just one more myth. C. S. Lewis knew those ancient myths and that was his conclusion. It was also mine.
But C. S. Lewis had a friend called J. R. R.Tolkien, who though he was a Mythologist, was also a profound Christian. Lewis found this strange. They had so much in common in their love of ancient lore, but so little in common when it came to faith in God. But as they talked in their rooms, and in the pub, and on long walks, Tolkien made the case:
In the coming of Jesus Christ into our world, the myths started coming true. Fiction became fact, story became history, God became man.
The nature of myths
But let me digress for a moment and talk about the nature of Myth. 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 people’s search for the meaning of life. Myths are attempts to explain the significance of things that are mysterious.
The myths are the world-wide acknowledgment that there is more to life than the things we can touch or taste or smell. There is something or someone outside this world that gives significance to human life. Myths are told and retold down the centuries to express the hopes of people for this life and for a life beyond. The myths express the dreams of people who often 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. But, they all took place in a never-never land of Peter Pan. They were supposed to have occurred “once upon a time in a land far far away”. That is because they were not the facts of the past; so much as they were hopes for a future.
But Tolkien pointed out to Lewis that one day all the old myths began to happen in the middle of human history. Something dramatic happened in a concrete moment of human history. This child of wonder was born when Herod the Great was King of Judea, and when Tiberius Caesar was Emperor of Rome. He died and rose from the dead during the days when Pontius Pilate was governor, and when Caiphas was high Priest. It all happened in the nation of Judea in some very real places: Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. The birth of God to a young woman took place in the middle of human history. This dying and rising God took place in historical time.
But Lewis protests. Why would God want to do that? Wouldn’t that confuse people? How could people tell the difference between history and myth, if they sounded so similar?
Tolkien’s answer was that God wanted to demonstrate the significance of this new event, by blending together the message of the world’s great myths. He patterned the new event after 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 of Jesus the Messiah they would know that Someone had come to fulfill their deepest dreams.
The Fulfillment of Israel’s Hopes
When St. Matthew writes his version of the event, he uses a phrase throughout the early chapters: “This took place to fulfill what was written by the prophets….”
Matthew understands that Jesus came to fulfill the dream that a nation 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. The nation longed for a true King, but had been ruled by inept or wicked kings instead. They hoped for Priests that would be true mediators between themselves and God, but had been disappointed at every turn by the high priests they had inherited. They longed for a prophet that would bring to them the salvation of God, and the prophets had not been listened to and quit coming, and the people of Israel continued to live with thwarted hopes.
But Matthew says suddenly an event took place that resurrected those dashed hopes. And he tells us that Jesus came to fulfill the dream of a disheartened nation, and that promised the fulfillment of a nation’s hopes.
The Fulfiller of the World’s Religions
But the balance of the New Testament bears witness to the fact that Jesus was more than the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. More than their long awaited Messiah. He was also the fulfillment of the dreams of every race and people.
- Read the sacred writings of Buddhism or Hinduism and there are prophecies that look for a Saviour.
- Read the writings of the Greeks and Romans who were left unsatisfied with their versions of god, but did not know where to find a better.
- When Paul visits Mars Hill in Athens, where the philosophers debated, he points out to them the altar to the unknown God and introduces them to the story of Jesus Christ who has come to fulfill their hopes too.
Jesus came to fulfill the deep yearnings of Israel. But, he came also to fulfill all the myths of all the ages of humanity.
This conviction brought about the conversion of C. S. Lewis, and made him one of the best exponents of the Gospel in the 20th century. This same conviction helped me make sense too, as an atheist turned Christian, because though experiencing a converting moment of the heart, I was still trying to make sense of it all in my mind.
So the conclusion was reached: Jesus came and patterned his coming as Matthew says, on the dreams and desires of Israel, but Paul reaching out to a gentile world also told them that Jesus came to fulfill all their hopes and dreams and myths. But it is also true that Jesus does not fulfill only ancient dreams: he offers fulfillment of our dreams too.
The Dreams of our 21st Century world
For we too have our dreams and hopes too. Many of them are wrong headed. We dream of owning a faster computer. We hope to win the lottery. We dream of better sex, a better job, a better home, and a better car.
But beyond the trivial dreams we dream, there are dreams that exist deeper down, deeper than our silly wants and wishes. Even in the 21st century we also yearn for super-heroes to come and save us. We hope for Magic Bullets that will solve the unsolvable problems we face. We hope for miracle cures that will reverse the terrible diseases that plague our planet. We long for the day when wars will cease across the globe, when poverty will be erased, when violence will come to an end, and when the planet we inhabit would find itself healed of its environmental illness.
Barak Obama, when he was a senator from Illinois, in 1995 wrote a book “Dreams From My Father.” He gives us a report of the sermon he heard that changed him from being a cynic to become a man of hope. He retells the story that his pastor told that day.
He spoke of a picture in an art gallery called HOPE. It is the picture of a harpist, who at first glance appears to sitting on top of a great mountain. But as you draw closer you see that the woman is bruised and bloodied, dressed in tattered rags. The harp has been reduced to a single frayed string. Then the eye is drawn to the mountainside and the valley below. Everywhere you look there are the ravages of famine, the drumbeat of war, the world groaning under strife and deprivation. But in the middle of that grim chaos the harpist is looking upwards, a few faint notes float upwards towards the heavens. She dares to hope; she dares to inject music into the madness of that world. She looks to God in hope.
And the Christian Church is always intended to be a creature of hope. Faith and hope! Some days we look like we don’t have a prayer. Our music is reduced to a tattered string; our powers seem puny in the face of the crises of our planet. But we are creatures of faith. We believe in the coming of Christ we have been shown the way forward. And we are creatures of hope. For we believe that as we ally ourselves with Jesus, and his teachings, those dreams of the personal life and our national life and all international matters, may also be fulfilled.
I have long loved the words of the poet Emily Dickinson.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all.