Christmas is not the most pleasant time to go to church. Not only unbelievers suffering from the compulsions of a churchgoing childhood but even fervent believers often have to steel themselves when the pastor rises to deliver his Christmas sermon. There is always the grim possibility that the focus will be upon those wretched persons in the congregation who have not been seen since the previous Easter; such sermons agonize the unbeliever without helping him and fail to edify the faithful (since Law is confused with Gospel and good advice is substituted for the central Christian message of Good News). But even if the Christmas churchgoer is fortunate enough to miss a law preachment, he will seldom avoid the twin agonies of sermonic rationalism and homiletic iconoclasm.

At the liberal side of the ecclesiastical spectrum, the person who has the temerity to enter a Christmas service has every chance of hearing an urbane plea to make his religion “relevant to the twentieth century” by chucking the supernatural baggage of the Christmas story. Influenced both by the Bultmannian efforts at “demythologizing” the New Testament message (penetrating beneath the miraculous accretions to its “genuine” existential center—the quest for “self-authentication”) and by the current vogue of “secular Christianity” (redefining the faith in terms of modern humanistic values), the liberal clergyman derides or pities the childish parishioner who must still hitch his religious wagon to the burnt-out Christmas star. Such legends were meaningful to our pre-scientific forebears, one is told, but to hold on to them now is to remain hopelessly wedded to an irrecoverable past. Magi and shepherds, annunciations and virgin births—surely we must locate the kernel of truth that is imbedded in these mythological shucks.

So loudly do such sentiments resound on the clear, crisp air each December that Anglo-Catholic philosophical theologian E. L. Mascall has immortalized them in two poems entitled, “Christmas with the Demythologizers” (Pi in the High [1959], pp. 49–51). Here are sample stanzas:

Hark, the herald angels sing:

“Bultmann is the latest thing!”

(Or they would if he had not

Demythologized the lot.)

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,

Glad to existentialize!

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and Science reconciled.

Lo, the ancient myths disperse.

Hence, three-storied universe!

Let three-decker pulpits stay:

Bultmann has a lot to say,

Since Kerygma still survives

When the myths have lost their lives.

Hark, the herald angels sing:

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“Bultmann shot us on the wing!”

But the agonies of the Christmas sermon are not entirely avoided even if our hapless seasonal churchgoer stumbles into an evangelical setting. There, though rationalistic shreddings of the New Testament account of the Incarnation are rigorously excluded, often an iconoclasm is promoted that leaves the congregation only slightly less unsettled. The preacher inveighs against all the unbiblical trappings that have accumulated around the Saviour’s cradle (better, swaddling clothes): the carols that do not express precise scriptural teaching; the emphasis on material gift-giving; the pagan Christmas tree; the gluttonous centrality of the Christmas dinner and the anthropocentric family reunions; the stress on our own children instead of on the Christ-child; and the evil genius of the whole occasion: Santa Claus. Depending upon the closeness of his confessional and temperamental alignment with Cromwellian times, the evangelical pastor may even give the impression that Christmas should be radically de-emphasized—or done away with altogether. After all, the holiday is nowhere commanded or even recommended in Scripture; and look at the appalling ways in which non-Christian Western society has secularized it since the eighteenth century!

Versus A Rationalistic Christmas

These two forms of sermonizing, the modernistic and the evangelical, though poles apart theologically, are bedfellows in their antipathy to “myth.” Where specifically has the follower of Bultmann gone off the track?

The Bultmannian demythologizer is convinced that the gospel accounts, particularly the infancy narratives at the beginning of Matthew and Luke, are the end products of an oral tradition that was shaped and freely altered by the early Church in light of its own needs and the mythological view of the world current at that time. By the techniques of “form criticism,” as practiced by the Dibelius-Bultmann school, one can reach behind the New Testament documents as they have come down to us and find the existential heart of the Christmas message.

But what assures the advocate of such “demythologizing” that he is arriving at bedrock reality when he reaches the level of existential experience? Is there any reason to assume that Heideggerian existential categories are less “mythical” than the simple New Testament accounts? As some nasty but profound critics of Bultmann such as Fritz Büri have pointed out, he may well be accomplishing nothing more than substitution of a modern philosophical myth for the original Christian conviction. The same could even be the case when the Bultmannian replaces the ancient “supernatural” conception of the universe by a modern cosmology. Contemporary cosmologies have not exactly excelled in durability; the twentieth century, with its high obselescence in cosmic explanations, has done no little myth-making on its own.

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Moreover, if the purportedly historical accounts of gospel events such as the Virgin Birth are not to be taken as factually true—if they require “demythologization”—why is the “core” message to be accepted at all? “History” and “theology” are painfully intertwined in the infancy accounts: “There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) … And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.” If the early Church could not get its historical facts straight, why do we think it succeeded so well when making high theological judgments? Here again Professor Mascall has the poetical word for the occasion (this time to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”):

Sir, my thoughts begin to stray

And my faith grows bleaker.

Since I threw my myths away

My kerygma’s weaker.

What is retained in the demythologizing process is, of course, a naïve faith in the methodology of the demythologizer. One is reminded of the encounter between Alice and (William Ellery) Channing-mouse in R. C. Evarts’s clever parody, Alice’s Adventures in Cambridge, published by the Harvard Lampoon in 1913; after the mouse has demythologized General Washington, the American revolutionary army, Paul Revere, and the Queen, he is forced to say to those who appeal to historical facts, “Your memory is simply a legend”—and when Alice finally asks the Black Knight, “Doesn’t he believe in anything?,” the inevitable reply comes: “Nothing but himself.”

The form-critical method of the demythologizer, however, is anything but believable, as its loss of ground in non-theological areas well exemplifies. In Greco-Roman and comparative Near Eastern studies, less and less reliance is being placed on such techniques as every year passes (cf. Composition and Corroboration in Classical and Biblical Studies [1966] by Edwin Yamauchi of Rutgers), for these methods are intensely subjectivistic. In the case of the New Testament material, the unscholarly character of this methodology appears especially in its gratuitous use of rationalistic presuppositions against the miraculous (how do the Bultmannians know that “the nexus of natural causes is never broken”?), and in its failure to recognize that the interval of time between the recording of the events of Jesus’ life and the events themselves was too brief to allow for communal redaction by the Church—especially in a hostile environment in which so many competing faiths were interested in destroying Christianity’s particularistic claims. In the study of English ballads, John Drinkwater (English Poetry) has rejected redaction-theory because of inadequate time for extensive alteration of the original ballads; yet the infancy narratives of our Lord never passed through such a long period of oral tradition as did the ballads, and the gospel narratives were in circulation when Mary and the other principals were still alive and when the opponents of the faith would have blasted accounts of Jesus’ divine origin had they not been factual.

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This Christmas, should one have the misfortune to wander into a demythologization service, the recommended Rx is serious contemplation of a typical assertion by one who knew both Mary and Jesus intimately: “We have not followed cunningly devised fables [Greek, mythoi], when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).

Versus An Iconoclastic Christmas

“Quite right! Well done!” declares our evangelical iconoclast from his Christmas pulpit: “The very factuality of the Christmas story requires us to strip away from this season all that is mythical—all the extra-biblical accretions, both ancient and modern, that have become associated with the birth of the Christ.” Certainly the iconoclast is right to demand that we maintain a clear distinction between the truly historical facts of the Incarnation and the non-historical, traditionalistic additions (for example, the impossible view evidently held by all crèche-makers that the wise men arrived at the same time as the shepherds). The iconoclasts perform a valuable service by emphasizing the distinction between retaining the old oaken bucket of solidly factual theology and scraping off the traditional moss that clings to it.

Yet the iconoclast misses a profound point as to the nature of the Christmas story—a point that applies with equal force to the entire Christian story. The genuine historicity of the Gospel does not prevent it from being at the same time genuinely mythical—in the special sense of a story that cuts to the heart of man’s subjective need. The greatest contemporary creator of literary myth, J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the three-volume masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, has argued this case in a manner that bears repeating (“On Fairy-Stories,” The Tolkien Reader [Ballantine Books, 1966], pp. 71–73):

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The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world.… The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe [decisive event of maximum value] of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.… To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed.… The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of Angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.”

What Tolkien says here is most assuredly true: the myths and legends and tales of the world that give symbolic expression to man’s fundamental needs (Carl Gustav Jung called them “the archetypes of the collective unconscious”) serve as pointers to the reality of the Christian message in which they are historically fulfilled. A tale as common as Sleeping Beauty is fully comprehended only in this light: the princess, subjected to a deathlike trance by evil power that cannot be thwarted despite all the good intentions and concerted efforts of her family, represents the plight of the human race; the prince, who comes by prophecy, enters the castle of death from the outside, and conquers the evil spell by the kiss of love, is the Redeemer of mankind; and the marriage and happy ending express the eschatological future of the redeemed and the marriage supper of the Lamb. God becomes the Lord of angels, and of men—and of elves.

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Seen in this light, as the fulfillment of the deepest longings men have brought to expression in their myths, the Christmas story is not to be set over against the traditional lore of the Christmas season. Indeed, that lore, when properly understood, will reinforce and heighten the truth of the Incarnation itself. The traditional carols will be listened to more closely, and even the most “secular” will yield the eternal message:

God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,

For Jesus Christ our Saviour was born upon this day,

To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray,

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.

The Christmas tree will inevitably and properly suggest the One who grew to manhood to “bear our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Family reunions will point to the truth that where two or three are gathered together, there Christ is in the midst, as well as to the family of the Redeemed, the clouds of witnesses, and the Church Triumphant that we shall ourselves join by God’s grace before many more Christmases have passed. The dinners and the parties will speak of the Christ who hallowed feasts when he walked this earth and who constitutes “living Bread come down from heaven.” The centrality of children at this blessed season should remind us that childlike faith before the mysteries of the Incarnation is a requisite for participation in his kingdom. And even (or especially?) the archetypal and ubiquitous Santa Claus, who comes from a numinous land of snow-white purity to give gifts to those who have nothing of their own, proclaims to all who have ears to hear the message of the entrance of God into our sinful world to “give gifts to men.”

The Way Of Affirmation

Christmas thus calls for total appropriation and re-consecration. It calls not for demythologizing but for remythologizing. It calls for what Christian litterateur Charles Williams termed “the Affirmative Way”:

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The Negative Way of the mystics is fulfilled and corrected by the Affirmative Way.… To its adherents, the heavens indeed disclose the glory of God, and the firmament shows clearly that it is his handiwork. They witness that he discloses himself in all things. Human love manifests divine love; particular beauties exhibit ultimate beauty [Shideler, The Theology of Romantic Love (1962), p. 25].

All the glories of the Holy Season, and all its tales—from Van Dyke’s The Other Wise Man to Seabury Quinn’s retelling of the Christ-oriented legend of Santa Claus—can in this way be reaffirmed. The Christian, solidly grounded in the eucatastrophe of man’s history, the birth of Christ, finds that the Evangelium has indeed hallowed every genuine manifestation of Christmas joy. Tire believer can affirm them all; to each he can say with thanksgiving: “This also is Thou.”

And as he remythologizes the season, another transformation occurs: in contact with the Christ who hallows all things, he is himself hallowed and becomes a living symbol by which others are pointed to the Incarnate Saviour. Like the Santa Claus of the legend (Quinn, Roads [1948], p. 110, he receives the wondrous commission:

His is the work his Master chose for him that night two thousand years ago; his the long, long road that has no turning so long as men keep festival upon the anniversary of the Saviour’s birth.

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