I’ve heard many conversations this advent about the ‘real’ Christmas story. I don’t know if it’s simply a fashionable trend or whether there are more people genuinely seeking answers, but it’s been surprising how many conversations there have been that including such statements as “There was no donkey!” or “It wasn’t actually a stable!” or “There might have been three gifts, but three men is only an assumption.”
In one respect such discussions are interesting because it gives you an opportunity explore the ‘real’ story a bit more. But I wonder if puncturing the ‘mythology’ that has grown up around the Christmas story is altogether valuable. When we assume three wise men or conflate the timing of wise men and shepherds or have Mary travelling on a non-existent donkey, does it really undermine any fundamental doctrines or Christian ‘truths’? By allowing ‘stories’ to grow around these events do we not, rather, encourage a greater sense of involvement and ownership in those who hear and retell these stories? So long, of course, as the underlying gospel is faithfully represented.
On the other hand, by exploring and exposing some of the accepted wisdom in the traditional interpretations, there is opportunity to reveal further colour in the stories. On Sunday past, at my placement church, there was the third in a short series of advent reflections – myrrh, the other two being gold and frankincense (the 4th Sunday being given over to the junior church nativity service). The ‘traditional’ teaching on the gift of myrrh is that it is looking ahead to Jesus’ death as it is often used as an embalming ointment. However, Stuart began his sermon with an ‘all you never knew about myrrh’ presentation. I must confess to wondering where it was going and he duly went – myrrh has just has many uses, in fact more, for the living as for the dead and so myrrh could just as easily be a reminder of some of the many facets of Jesus. Myrrh has healing properties, it soothes, it takes away the stench of decay. When we explore the ‘story’ and even allow other stories to come into play, we unwrap a few more layers and thereby show the depth of meaning behind the simple ‘facts’.
There’s another thing that stories do. Facts explain things. Facts tell us where limits are. They provide ‘data’. Stories bring colour and depth and vibrancy. They bring out meaning and yet can also shroud in mystery. How can mere facts reveal the mystery of a virgin birth, God incarnate as a baby or the sense of wonder experienced by those who came to worship?
I think I’d rather see the mystery than the trivia, interesting though it may be.