A subversive story of self-sacrifice Karen Armstrong To celebrate the nativity story with a consumerist orgy is to misunderstand a muth that venerates the dispossessed. The Hindu Friday, Dec 23, 2005 - GuardianThe Christmas story was not intended to be factual. Only two of the evangelists give an account of Jesus' birth; in Mark, almost certainly the oldest of the four gospels, Jesus makes his entrance as a mature adult, with parents, brothers and sisters well known in Nazareth. No angels sing over his makeshift cradle and no miraculous star shines over the stable. The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are what Jews call midrash, which give two very different interpretations of Jesus' life and mission.
We could also say that the nativity is a myth. That does not mean that it is not true. A myth can be defined as something that, in some sense, happened once, but that also happens all the time. Myth reveals the underlying and timeless significance of an event. It is also a programme for action. The gospels are not accurate biographies of Jesus; like any religious text, they tell the reader how to behave. Unless a myth is put into practice, we do not grasp its full import. Both Matthew and Luke are convinced that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah, who, it was widely believed, would be a descendant of King David, so Bethlehem (David's birthplace) is a more suitable site for his nativity than Nazareth. Throughout his gospel, Matthew argues that Jesus came not only for the Jewish people but also for the Gentiles. He therefore makes the three wise men from the east the first people to recognise and pay homage to him. Luke, on the other hand, wants to show that Jesus' mission is to people who are marginalised and outcast, so he makes the shepherds, who were often regarded as unclean because they did not observe the purity laws, the first recipients of the good news. In both gospels, outsiders are given priority over those who are already in the fold. It is also worth reflecting that the wise men are traditionally believed to have been magi from Iran. The inclusive nature of the Christmas story should be stressed at a time when some of the faithful insist that they have the monopoly of truth and when religion is used to divide humanity into warring sects. The honour given to outsiders in the Christmas story and throughout the New Testament is also instructive. The gospels consistently present Jesus as consorting with people reviled by the respectable establishment — with "sinners," publicans (who were regarded as traitors because they collected the Roman taxes) and prostitutes. Christians are instructed not to judge others. Self-righteous condemnation of, for example, gay marriages cannot therefore be regarded as truly Christian. At this time of escalating warfare, it is worth noting that the angels who appear to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus are soldiers in God's "heavenly host," who have laid down their arms and announce an era of peace. In some parts of the New Testament, Jesus is certainly presented in a martial guise, but in Matthew he tells his followers to love their enemies, not to retaliate, and to turn the other cheek when attacked. It is important, when we see violence so often justified on religious grounds, to balance the aggressive texts found in so many scriptures with the insistence upon peace and forgiveness that is also characteristic of the major faiths. It is deeply ironic that Christmas is now celebrated with an orgy of spending and overeating, because the nativity is a story of deprivation. There is no room for the holy family in the inn; in Matthew's gospel, Jesus becomes a refugee. The gospels would look askance at the modern festival of consumerism. Jesus constantly tells would-be disciples to give everything they have to the poor. In Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, he tells them to give up their jobs and live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; they must not amass perishable riches on earth, but lay up treasure for themselves in heaven. There is a good deal of discussion these days about whether Islam is compatible with secular, representational government. But if Christianity, whose founder lived rough and abjured material possessions, helped to create and endorse capitalism — surely one of the strangest developments in religious history — for Islam to embrace democracy should be child's play. Christianity has found questions of sexuality and gender particularly difficult. The New Testament is ambiguous about the position of women. Matthew is rather a male chauvinist. In his gospel, the angel announces the news of Jesus' conception only to Joseph; Mary does not seem to have been consulted at all. In Luke's gospel, however, women, like other peripheral groups, play an important role. Gabriel is specifically sent to ask Mary's consent, and she becomes a prophetess, uttering a revolutionary hymn that predicts a new world order in which the mighty will be cast down from their thrones and the poor will be exalted. One suspects that Luke would have had no problems about the ordination of women. Christmas is often called the festival of the family, but it is hard to find much celebration of family values in the New Testament. Jesus' miraculous conception makes the holy family somewhat atypical, and he seems to have had a problematic relationship with his relatives, who at one time try to lock him up because they think he is mad. Luke's gospel tells disciples to leave their wives and children; Jesus praises those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom, and St. Paul gives grudging support to matrimony, teaching that while the single life is preferable, it is better to marry than to burn. Religious systems are complex, and their symbols become so familiar that we often do not see them clearly. But the crib reminds us that it is difficult to be religious and we should be on our guard against self-indulgent, simplistic interpretations. We have seen a lot of bad religion recently. The Christmas myth reminds us that faith does not always bring comfort and joy, but demands self-sacrifice, a commitment to justice and equity, and a determination to seek the sacred in the outcast and dispossessed. (Karen Armstrong is the author of A Short History of Myth)