thinking theology

The Truth about Myths

Last week, I heard someone say they didn’t want to come to church because it’s all a bunch of myths. Well, that boy is quite right — about the myth part anyway. A myth is a narrative that tries to explain or teach something about how the world is. Every culture has its gods and stories about how the world began. These are not facts like “rain is wet.” These are stories to help us understand the truth behind certain events or ideas.

At this time of year we say we are remembering the birth of Jesus, but of course no one knows for sure what happened or what his early life was like, so we are not really remembering. We are re-imagining.

Some scholars have found some interesting ideas that they think may be true. There was a child born to a woman called Mary. His name was Jesus and his father may have been a Roman soldier called Panthera. If that is true, then probably Panthera was called to duty before he perhaps even knew that Mary was expecting a baby. A man in Nazareth called Joseph, who was perhaps a widower with children of his own, offered to marry Mary. So, Joseph was most likely his stepfather. Jesus had several stepbrothers and sisters and maybe Mary went on to have other children. No one knows for sure.

What we do know is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth in a fairly traditional Jewish home. He was probably a Pharisee. His mother must have taught him to see the burdens the occupation of Rome and the ruling class of the Jewish temple placed upon his neighbours and the people who were homeless.

In fact, Jesus was so remarkable, that when good people met him as an adult, they saw the holiness in him. At first they called him a great prophet and healer and later they said he was a child of God, born to set the people free.

The stories in Luke and Matthew about Jesus’ birth were written after his death. They had several purposes. The first thing they wanted to say is that the revelation of God is not shown by rulers like the Caesars. Luke and Matthew took stories about the birth of Augustus Caesar and changed them so we would see what a real holy birth would be like.

And so what happened in those stories? Jesus was not born in a palace but in a wayside inn. There was no royal court around, just the shepherds watching their sheep in the night. Instead of candles and flaming torches, there was the beautiful night sky, filled with stars and the song of the universe as it turns around and around. Instead of kings arriving to take advantage of something new, there were scholars who wanted something more important than facts to guide them.

This myth of Jesus’ birth has so much real truth in it, that people keep writing variations on it. Everyone can see that the truth at the heart of the story is about God who lives within us, inside us, and between us. And the other thing we know is that all who met Jesus were either in love with him or afraid of him. That’s a lot of power in one ordinary guy. And that’s the biggest mystery of all: why did the life and death of one man change the world so much? The problem isn’t that his story is told in myth, but that people don’t have enough patience to let the mystery unfold, to see that if you want the truth, you need to learn how to wonder and imagine. So when your friends say it’s all a myth, you say, “Yes!” Isn’t it a great story about how God’s love is expressed by ordinary people, babies, stars, the night sky. Better yet, because it is a mystery, we can keep on telling stories about it and keep on learning until finally we will be filled with the whole of God’s mystery. And then maybe God will begin another story….

Leave a Reply