While this Pagan was in the middle of the most Christian part of our country, singing “Silent Night” to rooms full of cheery Jesus-folk, a small group of vocal and well represented Christians took up arms in a supposed “war on Christmas,” and now my Pagan brothers and sisters across the internet are all in a tizzy.
Facebook is littered with defensive posts about Saturnalia and Winter Solstice, and as I write these words a boldly entitled essay, Christ is NOT the Reason for the Season, is the most popular post on all of Patheos.com. Many Pagans are spreading the good news that Jesus is simply a stand in for an older and thereby (as their logic would suggest) more relevant deity, and their antagonism is serving well as ammunition for the angry, Fox News sponsored, Christian artillery.
But everybody’s missing the point. And, as with many historical battles, both sides are much more alike than they’d be willing to admit.
Too many Christians and Pagans are making an idol out of historicity.
Our religious and cultural narratives are relevant because they speak to something true about the human experience, not because they are historically accurate. Fundamentalists, be they Christian or Pagan, willfully ignore this point.
The story of Christmas is metaphor. For that matter, the very word “God” is metaphor. As Matthew Fox writes in his book, The Hidden Spirituality Of Men:
Metaphor is the proper language for the Sacred, for that which is bigger than our controlled world of words. It is also deeper and more grounding, more primeval, more child-like, and more bodily than the literal.
The function of mythological stories is not to mandate the way we live our lives. That’s where fundamentalists and literalists get it wrong. And, ironically, that is the mindset which motivated so many of the most vocal, and sometimes historicity-obsessed Pagans to leave their Christian congregations in the first place.
Rather, these stories are meant to help us approach the mystery of the Divine. If they aren’t doing that, then either they aren’t worth telling or we aren’t making ourselves open to their deeper meaning.
The literalist Christians who insists that the Bible is a divine instruction manual which provides the faithful with a five to six-thousand year “historical” record of the life of this planet are misguided. They’re trying to fashion science out of poetry, and they’re botching the beauty and power of the language in the process.
With that said, the literalist Pagans who will hear nothing of the symbolism and metaphor found in the stories of the Bible, or who insists on pointing out every last historical inaccuracy found in the Christian tradition, are also misguided. They are allowing themselves to be blinded by the same, insistent rationalism that their Christian fundamentalist counterparts tout as proper piety.
The problem is not in the story. The problem is in the way we tell the story.
The Christmas narrative need not be about an actual birth of an actual person. Christmas is just a starting point for people to explore the idea of the coming together — the bodily cohabitation — of the Divine and the human. And, it doesn’t have to be about some singular, historical moment when this divine cocktail first was mixed and shaken in the little baby body of Jesus; Christmas can be about this union taking place in every, single human being, at every moment, across all traditions and all religions.
Incarnation is a universally applicable metaphor. The Christmas myth is archetypal. It belongs to all of us, because it speaks to something human, not simply something Christian.
To quote Matthew Fox again,
The archetype of Christmas also speaks to just what a child is. Who is a human child? Not only the son of a king, the son of a president, the daughter of a rock star—not only the identity of a well-known or well placed child, but the “every child,” including the poorest of children born to the poorest of parents in the poorest of circumstances—in a stable, a barn, a ghetto, or a peasant village. What about that child? What is his or her worth?
This can be the meaning of Christmas, and this is a message that is approachable by all people.
Myth — Christian and Pagan alike — is a gift available to all of us, and can be a starting point for a deeper level of engagement with our own humanity. Christmas need not be a time of anger at fundamentalists, or of becoming, ourselves, fundamentalist. Christmas — even for the non-Christian — can become a metaphor for our own expanding compassion. It can come to represent our decision to hold up the worth of every person, of every child, of every moment of this precious life.
It can be that if we are willing to let go of our anger, to release this need for historical accuracy, and to open up to the fragility and strength of our own human hearts.