In his new book about Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI looks at the early life of Jesus – and, as one reviewer said, he “…debunks several myths about how the Nativity unfolded.”
The Pope says that the Christian calendar is actually based on “a blunder by a sixth century monk, who was several years off in his calculation of Jesus’ birth date.” He said that there’s no evidence in the Gospels that the cattle and other animals traditionally pictured gathered around the manger were actually present. “
He also debunks the claim that angels sang at the birth, a staple theme of Christmas carols.” The word ‘debunk’ comes from a speech given by a member of Congress, Felix Walker, whose district included Buncombe County, North Carolina. In 1820 he gave a long, dull speech about Buncombe, explaining that he thought he owed it to the citizens of Bunkum (original spelling). His speech became synonymous with claptrap and the word bunk was born.
The religious term for what the Pope does in his latest book is demythologize: “To rid of mythological elements in order to discover the underlying meaning.” The next step is to remythologize the story—to interpret it in a way that reveals the deeper truths that are contained in it.
Yes, of course, the entire birth narrative is myth – what Joseph Campbell liked to call ‘a Truthstory, not a true story.’ The Truth in the ancient story of the birth of Christ in a manger, in the stable of the inn, with the barn animals around, because there was no place for them in the inn, touches something in us that the bare facts don’t touch.
It’s about the miracle of every birth – the mystery and wonder of life – of every life, including not only this child of God, but the lives of all the animals with whom we share this earth, our common home –all of God’s creatures. And, by extension, the plant life, and the microorganisms, that are all part of what we like to call ‘the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.’
Two cheers for the Pope’s demythologizing. But we need three cheers; we need to look again at all the ancient myths to discern the deep Truths found in them. This ‘babe in the manger,’ like all children, needs the warmth of human touch, the love of human compassion, the forgiveness that’s required. Christ is not Jesus’ surname, but it is, rather, a name given to indicate the human family which we’re all part of.
The Hebrew word Messiah is the Greek word Christ. A Messiah is a saviour or liberator of a people in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic religions. When you understand the concept of the Messiah, or Christ, you’ll realize that it’s the person next to you – it’s the potential for love within each of us.
So I hope you’ll re-mythologize the birth narrative and put Christ back in Christ-mas; I hope you’ll continue to discover the deeper meanings in the old myths, and I hope that the Prince of Peace will beborn in you, again and again.
Enjoy the season and hear the angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King.’