If a preacher wants to keep their job, and not unnecessarily tick people off, there are two topics they carefully skirt around, when preaching on Christmas Eve. For the purposes of this blog entry, I am calling them "Christ-Myths", mostly because I like the word-play.
Myths get a bad name in our culture. We use the word "myth" in a dismissive way, to say that something is untrue, and therefore unworthy of serious attention. But myths are more than that. A myth is also a story that carries meaning that matters to us.
The story of Santa Claus is one of the myths that I am careful with on Christmas Eve. (Actually for the whole Advent and Christmas season.) The story of Santa is a fantasy, only loosely based on the story of the historical figure Saint Nicholas. This does not prevent us from using the story to pass on meaning that we think is important. We especially want the children in our life to live, if only for a few years, in a world in which magic is possible, and in which such a kind and generous figure could exist. We are attracted to the idea that Santa loves all the children of the world, and visits all of their homes on Christmas Eve. This is a much happier idea than the the reality that many of the children in the world do not have homes, and will most certainly not receive a special gift from a magical benefactor.
Myths are powerful things. They have positive and negative aspects. The downside of the Santa myth, in my opinion, is the "naughty or nice" piece. It strongly suggests to a child that does not receive all they hoped for at Christmas that it is their fault. I don't like the implication that Santa's generosity, or love, is conditional upon the child's behaviour. What about the kids who won't receive much, whether or not they behaved well?
The other "Christ-Myth" that I approach with caution is the Virgin Birth. A good friend asked me this week if I planned to talk about it. They said, " What if this part of the Jesus story, which is so hard to take seriously, is the barrier or obstacle that is stopping a person from taking the person and message of Jesus seriously? " (Okay, I am paraphrasing their question, but that was the gist of it!)
For those who are surprised to read that I would classify the Virgin Birth as a myth, I recommend "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus", by John Shelby Spong. In this book, Spong adds his voice to that of a chorus of Biblical scholars who recognize the beauty and the power of the New Testament stories of the birth of Jesus, without reading them as literally true.
In my own sermon preparation work this Advent, for the "Children of Promise" series, I have been struck by how many times in Bible stories, God is at work changing the world through the birth of a vulnerable child. Isaac, son of Sarah. Moses, son of Jochabed, Samuel, son of Hannah, John, son of Elizabeth, and Jesus, son of Mary are all examples of "miracle" babies, who either were almost not born in the first place, or narrowly managed to survive their infancy.
In a real sense, every child is a miracle baby, even if they are not the hero of a Bible story. Do we need a "bigger, better" miracle in the case of Jesus, in order to take him seriously?