O Little Town of Mythlehem

Leo Hayes, my Catholic priest friend in Illinois, sent us a Christmas card that featured a fanciful and Anglo-idyllic picture of Mary and the baby Jesus.  Mary was blonde and — judging from the flow of her curls, her long lashes and glossy lips — she had just made herself up. Jesus, too, was appropriately Caucasian, but his most distinguishing feature was an unfortunate forehead that was so flat and extended that the whole effect of the picture was of a pious young Drew Barrymore cradling a swaddled canned ham.

The hand-written message inside came with blessings of peace and the hope of salvation, and in that regard it was a beautiful card.

The card reminded me of Pope Benedict’s recent book, which examines the early years of Jesus. The book kicked up a little dust among the faithful, as Benedict — speaking with the authority of a scholar, not with the infallibility of a pontiff — dismissed some longstanding notions about the Nativity. Over the centuries, he acknowledged, a little creative license was taken with the narrative.

Among his arguments was that Jesus wasn’t born in the Year Zero, but most likely 6 or 7 B.C.; that the Star of Wonder was most likely the scientifically verifiable conjunction of two planets that year; and that there were no cattle at the manger for the blessed event.

One might quibble with some of Benedict’s conclusions — such as his contention that the host of angels did not actually “sing” to herald the birth (they used their speaking voices, he explained, it’s just that angel voices happen to sound like music to mortal ears) — but it’s refreshing that the head of the Catholic Church is willing to embrace science and history and point out the error of our traditional sacred cows.

Another friend told me a startling story a few days ago. Until recently he taught journalism at a Christian university near St. Paul, Minnesota, and his office was among the theologians’ and philosophers’ on the faculty. One of the debates spilling out of those offices concerned the recent mapping of the human genome. The problem they perceived was in reconciling those scientific findings with the Adam and Eve story, which it apparently debunked.

It came as a revelation to learn that there are some in academe — outside of Kansas — who seriously believe the literal truth of the Garden of Eden story, or anything from Genesis, for that matter.

But while I may wonder how teaching biblical literalism can ever be called “higher education,” I understand that many Christians feel threatened by alternative views. Yet, I think the Bible is not diminished by those findings. In fact, it might be strengthened. 

The stories in the Bible are rich with myth, in the Joseph Campbell sense of the word, in that they speak of greater truths. If we get past the fictions of the classic tales — whether they’re of Noah or Jonah or the first Noel — we can focus on the underlying message, the deeper truth to the story.  It helps to open the card and read what’s inside.

Drew Barrymore and the canned ham make me smile every time, but I know it’s only the cartoon version of a deep and rich story. It’s a story that’s essentially about hope and salvation and the common thread that binds all of us, whether we’re shepherds or kings. It’s a story about the glory of giving and the power of surrender.

It doesn’t matter if the story is word-for-word true. It doesn’t matter if the “star” was really a couple of conjoined planets, or whether or not the cows showed up. The story is beautiful in almost any telling. And no matter what we choose to believe, if we tune our ears to the underlying truth of the tale, we might actually hear the angels sing. 

— 30 —

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx


❏ Looking for a Chicago
    Dog in Cow Town
❏ In Death’s Waiting
❏ Living in Interesting
❏ Remembering 9/11 
❏ In Defense of
❏ A Minor Distraction
❏ Giving the Computer
    the Boot
❏ The Depth of These
❏ Musings on the Plaza,
    and a World at War
❏ The Tale of the
    All-Seeing Bob
❏ Morning Drive
    on the First Day
❏ Fruit Stands in October
❏ Moving Day, 
    Oscar Night