Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas: a true Christian myth

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

A few weeks ago, with pomp and circumstance, the current pope showed himself to be a theologian again by publishing a book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. In it, he presents the traditional classical version that sees a historical narrative in those idyllic stories. The book left theologians surprised, since, for at least 50 years, biblical exegesis of these texts shows that this is not a historical account, but high and refined theology developed by the evangelists Matthew and Luke (Mark and John don't say anything about the childhood of Jesus) to prove that Jesus really was the Messiah, Son of David and Son of God.

To this end, they resort to literary genres that seem like history but are actually literary devices such as, for example, the Magi (who represent the pagans and sages), the shepherds (the poorest and considered sinners for dealing with animals that made them legally unclean), the Star and angels (to show the divinity of Jesus), Bethlehem, which wouldn't be a geographical reference but theologically significant -- the place, according to the prophecies, where the Messiah would come from, different from Nazareth, wholly unknown, where Jesus probably would have been born. And other topics as discussed in detail in my book Jesus Christ Liberator (Chapter 8). But all that is important to us, because it implies very specific knowledge.

What matters is that in the face of such moving tales of the Nativity, we can say that we stand before a great myth, understood positively as anthropologists do -- myth as the transmission of a truth so profound that only mythical, figurative and symbolic language is suitable to express it. It's what myth does. A myth is true when the meaning it wants to convey is true and illuminates the entire community. Thus the Birth of Jesus is a Christian myth full of truth, closeness to God and familiarity.

Today we use other myths to show the relevance of Jesus. An ancient myth that the Church uses in the Christmas liturgy to reveal the cosmic upheaval before the birth of Christ, is of great significance to me.

It says:

"When the night was halfway through its course, there was a deep silence. Then the chattering leaves fell dead silent. Then the wind that whispered stayed quiet in the air. Then the singing rooster stopped in the middle of his song. Then the waters of the running stream froze. Then the sheep who were grazing stood still. Then the shepherd who lifted his crook was petrified. At that moment everything stopped, everything was silent -- Jesus was born, the Savior of mankind and the universe."

Christmas wants to communicate to us that God isn't that stern figure with penetrating eyes to scrutinize our lives. He appears as a child. He doesn't judge; He just wants to receive affection and to play.

And behold, from the Manger came a voice that whispered to me:

"O, human creature, why are you afraid of God? Don't you see that His mother swaddled His fragile little body? Don't you realize He doesn't threaten anybody? That neither does He condemn anyone? Don't you hear how he's softly crying? More than helping, he needs to be helped and covered with affection. Don't you know that He is God-with-us like us?" And we don't think anymore; we yield to the heart that feels, has compassion, and loves. What else could we do before a Child knowing He is God made man?

Perhaps no one has written better about Christmas and Baby Jesus than the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa who says "He is the eternal Child, the God that was missing. He is the Divine that laughs and plays. He's a child as human as he is d ivine."

Later they changed Baby Jesus into Saint Nicholas, into Santa Claus and, finally, Father Christmas. It matters little because,deep down, the spirit of kindness, proximity, and the Divine Gift is there. Francis Church, an editorial writer for The New York Sun was right in 1897 when he responded to Virginia, an 8-year old girl who wrote, "Dear Editor:..Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?"

And he wisely answered:

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence."

But for this, we have to learn to see with the eyes of the heart and love. Does Father Christmas exist? Thanks be to God, he lives and will live as long as there are children big and small who have learned to see with the eyes of the heart.

On this feast, let us try to see with the eyes of the heart. We have all been taught to see with the eyes of reason, therefore we are cold. Today we're going to regain the rights of the heart. We're going to let ourselves be moved with our children, allowing them to dream and being filled with tender emotion before the Divine Child who felt pleasure and joy on choosing to be one of us.

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