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Christmas: The Value of the Magical over the Mundane

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 06, 2018 9:36 pm    Post subject: Christmas: The Value of the Magical over the Mundane Reply with quote

Come fly with me at midnight on Santa’s snow-lined sleigh
For a Christ born soon after sunset on a balmy April day.

The more I read around the New Testament, the more full of symbolic stories, and the less of concrete truths it seems to be. Which of the 14 Apostles named in the Gospels were Jesus’s special 12? Which seven or eight of them walked beside him in Palestine and which are only names put in the lists of 12 to make up the numbers?
Did St. Paul go to Jerusalem, and later to Rome, as Luke described in Acts of the Apostles, or did Luke make up both stories as part of a tale about Paul’s life intended to create an illusion that Paul and Peter worked in parallel and in harmony?
And as for the Christmas joy that came upon the Midnight Clear: Jesus wasn’t born in December – it was probably April; nor at midnight; nor just before the year 1 AD; nor in a stable; and Mary didn’t travel nine months pregnant from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth.
Let’s go through these points for a few moments, one by one.
• Jesus was born in a cave, not a stable, according to the story preserved in The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ. I’ve seen evidence that that cave births in Palestine are fairly normal.
• Jesus’s family didn’t travel down to Bethlehem from Nazareth. The family didn’t need to go on any long journey: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Latin Text tells us that they lived in Bethlehem. Only, Mary’s waters broke when they weren’t at home; the cave she gave birth in, likely belonged to a friend.
• The angels were real: but they lit up the birth cave, not the sheep pasture – and I do like the First Gospel of the Infancy’s description of the angelic light after nightfall as “greater than the light of the sun itself”, and the cave as “seeming like a glorious temple”.
• The shepherds were real too, but, because they were watching their flocks by night, it can’t have been December, when the temperature in Bethlehem is typically about 7 degrees at night. Palestinian sheep were brought in, around the end of October.

Church writers from the early centuries of Christianity named dates for Jesus’s birth including 28th March and 25th April.
Astronomer Michael Molnar, of Rutgers University, near New York, has proposed 17th April of 6 BC as the likely date, because on that day three unusual things happened to the planet Jupiter in the sky at the same time, as seen from Earth: it became temporarily stationary in the constellation of Aries, the star sign of beginnings; it rose just moments before sunrise; and the moon eclipsed Jupiter for the second time within a month, “this time”, according to Molnar, “high in the sky at noon, in the direction of Bethlehem as viewed from Jerusalem."
Molnar also found evidence from coins, which told him that this unusual event was interpreted at the time as highly astrologically significant, and would have been specifically interpreted as pointing to a special birth in Judea.
If it was an April birth, yes there’d have been shepherds in the fields at night: Bethlehem is warm then, and lambs are young and vulnerable.
And as for 6 BCE, I was already favouring it as the most likely year of Jesus’s birth, before I found out about Molnar’s discoveries, because it fits well with lots of other elements in the Jesus story: the probable date for the death of King Herod, early in 1 BCE; the Infancy Gospels’ statements that Jesus was two years old when he was taken to Egypt, and that he spent three years there, plus their describing events back in a Jewish environment when he was five; the statement that he was “about 30” when he started his ministry; and the fact that two quite ancient sources, presumably independent of each other, and neither with any desire to put any spin on the date of his death other than the truth, indicate that he died in the first half of the year 29 AD.
And our culture honours this with Christmas-card pictures full of snow, cartoons of Santa Claus driving reindeer in the sky, cold-feel songs about a bleak midwinter, and about a good king called Wenceslas who walked through the bitter weather to feed a poor family!
You see what I meant with my title, “Come fly with me at midnight on Santa’s snow-lined sleigh / for a Christ born soon after sunset on a balmy April day”. Almost everything in the familiar Christmas story is make-believe, both what’s in the Bible and what isn’t.
What for?
Christmastide is the time when British culture stands up for the value of the magical over the mundane, colourfulness over commonality.

Early Christians altered the actual Christmas story to suit the needs of their culture.
The Thomas Infancy Gospel said Jesus’s childhood when he returned from Egypt was in Capernaum, a real town on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Gospels relocated Jesus to Nazareth, a place 30 miles away which in his time seems from the archaeology to have been only the odd farm, a cemetery and a vineyard.
Those 2nd-Century Christians had what, to them, was a good purpose. If you had a Christian upbringing, you’ve probably heard of the ‘Pharisees’ and the ‘Sadducees’, two sects of Judaism in Judea in Jesus’s time. There was also a third branch, less well known to churchgoers, the Nazoreans. Jesus was a Nazorean Jew. But come the mid-2nd Century, saying ‘Nazorean’ would have turned people off him. A bit like saying someone was a Stalinist in Gorbachov’s or today’s Russia. So the church airbrushed Nazorean off Jesus’s story, and substituted Nazareth instead.
Luke moved Joseph and Mary’s home at the time of Jesus’s birth from Bethlehem to Nazareth so as to strengthen the connection. Luke also probably adjusted the date of a census by three years so as to provide a cause for his imaginary journey from there to Bethlehem for the birth.
Later – more than 300 years later – the church chose to commemorate Jesus’s birthday on 25th December. Their main purpose was to take over the date of the “birth of the unconquerable sun”, a celebration across the Roman Empire of the beginning of greater light after the Winter Solstice, which had been established by the Emperor Aurelian half a century before Emperor Constantine became a Christian.
For the church, this symbolism was much more precious than historical exactitude. Jesus was by then established in Christians’ minds as the dying and resurrected God, and the growing of the length of daylight after the Winter Solstice is the symbolically right time for such a being to be born.
Imagination reaches the hearts that facts cannot reach.
Somewhere along the line, the time of Jesus’s birth also shifted. It moved from the ‘soon after sunset’ spelt out in the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ to ‘midnight’.
Now, why do we think that might be? Why did the carol make the angels sing on ‘the Midnight clear’?
What happens, in stories, at midnight?
One might think of ‘Midnight’s Children’, for example; and Cinderella; and ‘the witching hour’.

Now let’s think about our British culture. We have added to the Christmas story to suit the needs of our time, and with even greater enthusiasm than the early church for bypassing the dull world of facts and bland accuracy. For us too, symbol and story are feeling and imagination, powerful and enduring.
And the particular stories we tell have arisen because of where we live. We’re in a place where winters are long and cold, and the daylight is short and dim. The sun doesn’t seem to get up above tree level, even on the few days we can see it at all – winter sunshine is on average not much more than one sunny day all week.
For all our central heating, well-lit homes, imported food, and office-hours life, winter still, at least it does for most of us, feels like something to put up with, rather than enjoy. In bitter weather, we hurry through what has to be done out of doors, heads bowed, wearing three layers.
The sun sets half way through the afternoon, when working people will still be at their desks for more than an hour, so we light up our darkness-at-teatime by decorating our homes and streets with strings of coloured lights.
Let’s play, our culture permits. As if we’re all children at heart. So, on the night before Christmas, in our play-minds.... Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker cracks, and all the toys start to talk.... Santa Claus soars away from his Lapland home at Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle, driving his sleigh across the sky pulled by magical reindeer.... and we have in our homes some Christian symbols – or rather, Earth-Spirit symbols – such as a tree that is always green, which we call a ‘Christmas Tree’; mistletoe for kissing under, as a prelude to next year’s fertility; and the holly and the ivy, which I believe was originally the holly and the yew.
The Yew is a symbol of the natural New Year and renewal that follows the Winter Solstice, because of the way it grows: the central trunk becomes old and its insides decay, but trunks arise around it from branches that grew downwards into the ground; and in time a new tree grows where the original one used to be.
And the overall effect of our Christmas symbols is a heartwarming feeling of goodness, and a cheering up of our lives under the grey skies of dark December. Never mind that rationalists say there’s no Santa Claus, and the Norway Spruce tree doesn’t know it’s Christmas. There’s a touch of magic twinkling in the lights, and when everything is swept away on the sixth of January, it’s the glow of the non-real that stays with us, its charm reflected in gentle memories.

Now, you are invited to open out your mind, and come with me and imagine.....
You may wish to pause after reading each of the next five sentences, close your eyes, and actually visualise or imagine as the sentence has guided you.

Imagine there are angels singing to you, in the place of your deepest peace, in a Bethlehem of Divine silence, where you are totally accepted, and understood, with no judgement – a holy place, where no worries, no concerns, and no hurts, can filter in and pollute.

Imagine that you are receiving special gifts from truly wise people, gifts that will serve you for all your life in this world – and beyond.

Imagine that you see a guiding star that shows you the way forward in your life in your moments of making a choice.

Imagine that, within you, there is a holy place, a protected place guarded by highly advanced Spirit beings who are One with the Divine. (This is an esoteric meaning of ‘Royal David’s City’.)

And imagine that you know an inner cave within this Sanctuary, where you can be at any time, and feel your self immersed in the presence of Infinite Love.


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PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2018 8:21 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

This is fascinating Wade, thank you for this. The interplay of story and history, the local and universal, myth and reality are part of the creative energy of spirituality. We like some festivals at the turning points of the year, and interweave the natural elements with our mythology and imagination.

Best wishes, Nick.
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2018 8:28 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

May I just ask, what are you referring to as 'The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ'? My limited Gospel knowledge has it that Mark's is the oldest surviving Gospel, or is that the name of one of the non-Biblical Gospels?

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 20, 2018 11:48 pm    Post subject: Infancy Gospels Reply with quote

Thank you for the compliment, Nick.

Yes, I read that most scholars agree that, of the Four Gospels in the New Testament, Mark was the earliest.

Now, there are a number of other early writings that have come to be known during the past century or so. Several of them are called "Infancy" Gospels because they write of things that happened during Jesus's childhood - or anyway, that they say happened.

A translation of the "First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ" is published here:

Hope that helps Smile
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2018 12:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I would add my thanks too Wade. Your piece makes very interesting reading - well researched and well written, without denigrating Christmas in any way. Our cultural inheritance with all its interpretations, understanding, additions and amendments can only add to our enjoyment of this dark season.

Wishing you all a happy, peaceful, thoughtful and imaginative Christmas.
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