the true myth
From today on (December 19th) we’re going to hear nothing but the Gospel of Luke until Christmas. As you know, Mark and John don’t even tell the story of Jesus’ birth. All of the images that we have around Jesus’ birth (which, one must admit, contradict each other sometimes) are from Matthew or Luke. I spent a lot of time with the infancy narratives of Luke, so it’s the one I like the best because it’s the one I know the best. It’s laid out quite beautifully, as you will notice, paralleling the life of John the Baptist with the life of Jesus: John’s birth is announced to Zechariah, then Jesus’ birth is announced to Mary; John is born and named, and then Jesus is born and named. And there is a beautiful interplay between the masculine and the feminine––Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary (Joseph doesn’t play much of a role in Luke’s Gospel), Simeon and Anna. And, of course, everybody breaks into song: Mary sings her Magnificat, Zechariah sings his Benedictus, the angels sing their Gloria, and Simeon and Anna sing their Nunc Dimittis.
In addition, not only does Luke have so many allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures; in the Church’s layout of our readings in these days there are even more. Besides the prophet Isaiah, from whom we have heard so much throughout Advent, in the next few days it’ll be a feast: we’ll be hearing from the Book of Judges, the Song of Songs, Zephaniah, the story of the prophet Samuel, Malachi. There is both a continuation of everything alluded to in the earlier scriptures as well as all of them being brought to their fulfillment, like all those images we hear in the O Antiphons that we sing in these days, again mostly drawn from the Jewish scriptures.
Of course, we don’t know exactly how the birth of Jesus really took place, and Matthew and Luke are being rather liberal with their imaginations. Now we are sure enough that there was a person named Jesus, and so he had to have been born, so there is a lot of truth in there too, but in this way the infancy narratives have a lot of mythological flavor to them. In some way they fall into the category with the great historical epics like the Mahabharata and the stories of the birth of gods from the Greek and Roman, Egyptian and Mithraic mythology, or the stories of indigenous and aboriginal peoples. But, as C. S. Lewis would say, it’s a true myth. Myths often have some kind of a basis in history, but more important are the psychological meaning and the spiritual truth that they are trying to convey. In the Jewish tradition, as in many other traditions, throughout what we call the Old Testament, the myths always tend to have a basis in history but what is unique, unlike other ancient traditions, is that the historical basis becomes more and more important in Judaism as the years go on, all the way up until the Gospels which could be seen as their culminating point. At the same time, we’re kind of in brackish waters here: just like someone can become kind of a mythic figure even when they’re still alive, just because they are based in historical fact doesn’t mean they can’t still have mythical elements, and vice-versa. The mythological retelling is just another more intuitive and poetic way to express a truth. And I think someone like Bede Griffiths would argue that there are some things that the raw data and historical facts can’t convey but a myth can, in the same way that a poem or a dance can convey more than an news article, and that is the meaning behind an event, its psychological impact and its spiritual significance. I remember after I had read the novel “The Life of Pi” and also saw the movie (in which there are two different accounts of what went on with the young guy in the row boat with the tiger named Richard Parker), someone asked me what I thought really happened, which version of the story did I think was true. I didn’t know how to answer, and to be honest it really didn’t matter to me. As we used to tease in Scripture class, “Everything in the Bible is true, and some of it really happened!”
So as we start to make our way through this great myth of the birth of Jesus, especially in these days when we hear the Gospel of Luke, let’s suspend our rational mind and its judgment for a couple of days, enjoy all these marvelous details, and try to keep in mind the moral of the story, the point of the story, which is the real truth of the story anyway. And at least in the Gospel of Luke one of the primary meanings seems to be this: that this is not an accident! This is the intervention of God in history, and history is heading somewhere. That’s why God sends Gabriel, the one who stands before God. And all this is taking place to fulfill promises. And that’s the second theme we should listen for in the Gospel of Luke: the fulfillment of promises. We hear Gabriel say it today––‘my words which will be fulfilled at their proper time’ as we will hear Elizabeth say it later––‘Blessed are they who believe that the promise of the Lord will be fulfilled.’ So John will both be in the line of prophets and judges stretching back to Samson and Samuel, and also be the greatest of all those prophets, and then Jesus will be the fulfillment of all of that prophecy, of all the archetypal and mythological images, the fulfillment of all promises and the high point of history. This is what the covenant really promised: that the Word would become flesh and dwell among us.
And so we might ask ourselves: what do we believe the promise is? What is the story we’ve been told, and what would its fulfillment look like? I’m sticking with this one: that the Word can take root in me and become something, and that Christ can be born anew in the world in and through me. And I’m gonna stick it out here until that happens. This is a good time to renew our hope. Blessed are we too who believe that the promise of the Lord will be fulfilled.