The Christmas season typically brings out secularists and atheists who rush in to discredit and hopefully to demolish the Gospel Infancy Narratives as being “myths”. By which they mean fictive, untrue stories by turns implausible, improbable and impossible. These they identify as the biblical narratives’ “magic” star; a massacre of male infants that has never been documented; angels “on high” proclaiming a Messiah’s birth; a virginally-conceived Savior; an angel appearing to the Messiah’s mother and whispering to the father in a dream; in short, all the tales that depict heaven having commerce with earth. The present writer objects to this wave of snarky criticism for several reasons.
The first objection is the critics’ indulgence in what the late Huston Smith termed “fact fundamentalism”. Which is the notion that if something is reported, especially in religious texts, something which is materially-scientificallly doubtful or outright impossible, then it must be dismissed as a lie, because it goes against science and reason.
Things such as Jesus’s virginal conception and the guiding star, of course, would fall into this category. My objection is 1) that religious communication typically employs the language of myth, analogy, allegory and metaphor, and 2) that critics of religion are obligated to be familiar with this fact. There are, in my view, some truths and some dimensions of human experience that cannot be expressed by any other kind of language, and in any other kind of imagery. In this sense, mythological language is a “specialist language” employed by religion to get across a message that is transcendent to expression by any other form of language.
If critics wish to challenge the validity of religious mythic language on the principle (say) that no Transcendent realms or beings exist, fine. But most of them whom I have read and encountered in online discussion groups have not the slightest inkling that religious narratives like Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity stories seek to communicate non-secular (and Transcendent) truth in language and imagery that is chiefly “archetypal” in nature. I have found that lack of this kind of information and understanding, more often than not, makes “Christmas critics” disappointing conversation partners. They do not, or will not, understand that there can be true, as well as false, myths.
So what kind of (non-scientific, non-secular) truths might be expressed in the mythic language of the Infancy Narratives?
When a holy person is said to have been born or conceived of a virgin, this might signal that the life so originated and birthed is a completely new form. A new beginning. One that is not burdened with humankind’s heavy, sordid history; one that is unfettered by the clinging vines of the Edenic “Fall”; one that has capacities for teaching, healing and/or redemption unlike those of us “commonly born”. As such a being, Jesus emerges in the Infancy Narratives, even at birth, as one marked by the Transcendent and to whom salvific expectations can validly be associated. Matthew and Luke use their Infancy stories to communicate to the reader how Jesus was the same person at his birth as he would be during his mission and after his resurrection, i.e., “Jesus Messiah, Son of God, Savior”.
Some famous Christian art portrays the Nativity as occurring in a cave wherein lies a diminutive stable, a feeding trough for animals serving as a crib for the new-borne Son of God. A cave is a gash, a hollow, an opening in the earth. The association of cave and trough or manger suggests the idea that Jesus is not only born of heaven, but also of the earth, and the animals’ presence firmly emphasizes this conceptualization. When Luke’s Gospel mentions the manger, he is referencing a prophecy that the Messiah’s own people will recognize him when he comes – Israel, in the guise of its faith-seeking shepherds, has come to pay homage to the birth of its messianic Lord. And Matthew’s Magi, too, following the beckoning star, signify that Gentiles, too, have found and revere the divine child. “…the star does not make a statement about an astronomical phenomenon, but about Jesus: his birth is about the coming of the light that draws wise men of the Gentiles to its radiance.” 1
Considering the Infancy Narratives’ symbols and imagery, and employing our capacity to think allegorically and mythically, these stories begin to emerge as disclosures of the divine, expressed in specialized language.
New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan examined Luke’s resurrection story about two pedestrians encountering a wise teacher on their way to Emmaus after Jesus’s execution. Little by little, they are driven to the conclusion that this is no ordinary traveler. He knows too much about scripture and too much about Jesus’s role as agent for God’s Kingdom on earth. Finally, the three stop to rest at an inn, where the two travelers’ uncertainty is resolved when they see the stranger – whom they now recognize as Jesus – break the dinner bread. The Messiah, hidden, unmanifest, had been traveling with them all along but was only unmistakably disclosed through his Eucharistic actions. Crossan says of this story, “Emmaus didn’t happen. Emmaus always happens”. The divine can remain “occulted” but then emerge by way of some of the simplest commonalities of life.
Similarly, the Infancy Narratives “hide” the divinity present in Jesus under a certain common, simple, but somewhat “coded” terminology. But it doesn’t take genius-level intelligence or high level scholarship to “break the code”. It’s there to be deciphered by anyone with the requisite curiosity and enough knowledge of mythical, allegorical language to appreciate its archetypal setting and unlock its allegorical meaning. Christians might even observe, with Crossan, “Bethlehem didn’t happen. Bethlehem always happens”. For them, the Son of God is made manifest in the believer, is born into the very heart of the soul, even now, some 2,000 years after the story’s origin.
1 The First Christmas, p. 182