The biggest trouble with Christmas is that truth and myth get mixed in the blender. Magi, Santa, the angel, reindeer, shepherds, snow and even penguins get whooshed up together.
What comes out is Mythmas: a retelling of Christmas involving three kings, snow, a donkey, cattle bowing down, Father Christmas and many other things you won’t find in the original Christmas account. But much more seriously, a widespread perception that Christmas is simply a myth, a fairy tale for the kids which no adult can take seriously.
But pick up the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, and you’ll find an entirely different emphasis. This is how Luke begins:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
This doesn’t look like the start of a fairy story. Luke wants the reader to know that he’s investigated the facts with all seriousness and care. He does not claim to be an eyewitness, but tells us he’s assembled the facts from eyewitnesses. He tells us his purpose is certainty — quite clearly he writes because he knows people will worry if they don’t have a clear account of the facts.
This brings to mind C S Lewis’ famous lecture at Westcott House on 11 May 1959, called Fern Seeds and Elephants. He took on those New Testament critics of his day who taught that the gospels were full of legend. Bringing his own knowledge of literature (he was by then Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge) to bear on the accounts of miracles in the gospels, he said: I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this.
We can easily see this for ourselves. If you have a moment, turn to Luke 3:1-2 and compare it to “just upon a time”!
This Christmas, we will do well to remember that as we open the gospels, we are dealing with fact. Parents would be wise to help their children spot the difference between what’s make-believe and what’s true at Christmas. And we should not let the strange blend of “Mythmas” put us off believing the real thing.
We start a new mini-series on Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus this Sunday at 10am.
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