Do you remember that part in the movie “Braveheart” where William Wallace appears to a huge crowd of Scottish soldiers to lead them, but because they’ve never met him before they doubt that it’s him because they’ve heard he is much taller and fiercer, and Wallace says something like, “Yes, and he shoots fire out his arse as well!” And they all laugh. Wallace heard of the legends already building around his reputation even while he was still alive.
The Christmas story wasn’t written down until 60 or 70 years after it apparently happened. There were only stories circulating with perhaps a few scraps of papyrus, nicknamed “Q”. Imagine if we tried to give an accurate account of the second world war if we only had verbal stories and no surviving written documents! How many versions would be out there? How diversified would the story be? How historically accurate?
The Christmas story, as I understand, percolates down to a few essential components:
- God empties “God” of God
- God enters humanity and becomes a man in the flesh
- When this man dies the Spirit of God comes as promised
- The universal human collective is where “God” now is by the Spirit
- God is now in all things reconciling all things to God.
If we can appreciate the mythological feel of this structure, we can also appreciate the deep truth that is expressed in it.
When I’m asked if I believe there was a real historical Jesus, at this point I say I believe there was a remarkable man who was an itinerant teacher that died for socio-political reasons and that his followers began to assemble stories, myths and legends around the man to show that he was not only a continuation of the Old Testament but also a radical departure from it.
I believe the man we call Jesus brought a revelation, lived it and taught it. I believe Jesus was a graphic rendering of the mystical truth that God is not in heaven on a throne, able and willing to rescue us. That idea had been thoroughly milked in the Old Testament and ultimately, I believe, failed. In fact, there were over 400 years of silence between last of the Old Testament writings and the beginning of the Christian era, a silence that I think symbolizes the silence one holds at a funeral for an idea of god that no longer worked.
Instead, Jesus showed, demonstrated, that God is now with us and within us. Jesus himself is said to have promised the Spirit to come after he died, meaning that now, and finally, God is no longer located geographically, neither in heaven or in the temple or in Jerusalem or in one perfect man or in the church, but is a universal and personal presence in all things without exception.
That is my take on the Christmas story. This is why I love it. The vast collection of wondrous stories all point to one remarkably simple but one devastatingly beautiful truth: all this is what we call “God”… you, me, the air we breathe, the environment, all things and the spaces between.
And this is really good news.