Even when we believe in God, we do not take the spiritual realm very seriously.

Christmas is not so much a story about Jesus as about God. He gave his greatest gift, himself. He freely chose to involve himself in the human condition without reserve.

The theme is divine impoverishment for the sake of human enrichment. He who was rich for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9). The One who is rich beyond imagining, superior in power, and perfect in wisdom and holiness became a helpless baby, poor and defenseless, to win the friendship of sinners. “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).

The greatest objection to the truth of the Christian message is a simple one: it is too good to be true. Celsus voiced this objection early in the history of the church. Being infinite, God could not do that, and being perfect, God would not do it. He might love mankind, but not that much. He might go to some lengths to help us, but not that far. In Judaism and Islam, God is merciful—but there are limits to what he is able and willing to do to put his love into effect. Christmas means that God loves us without limits. It means he has not given us over to our fallenness, but that he entered our situation in Christ and gave full expression to his gracious Word in that singular human life. Belief in the incarnation of the Son of God has always been the hallmark of Christian faith and a pearl of greatest price.

But why does it sound like a myth to Western ears? Why does it seem like an imaginary tale out of a book of fables? One reason has to do with Western ears themselves. We have been immersed in a scientific mentality that limits reality to the realm of material cause and effect. We are suspicious of the paranormal and any claims to be in touch with it.

Even when we believe in God, we do not take the spiritual realm very seriously and limit God to a restricted set of activities. We have a natural bent to want to demythologize aspects of what the Bible reports God did. Confronted with the message of the Incarnation, the Western mind immediately thinks of myth. We need to apply the insights of anthropology to ourselves and not just to others, and recognize that the problem does not lie in the gospel but in ourselves. We are afflicted with a poverty of imagination and spirit, and we need to be healed. Radical theology is right—people today often live as if there were no God. But rather than something to accept and celebrate, it represents a negative element in our cultural conditioning that we need to try to transcend.

But there is another intrinsic reason why the Christmas story sounds like a myth. It reminds us of the handsome prince sweeping in to rescue the sleeping princess. It sounds a little like the ancient cycles of pagan myths that spoke of the dying and rising god, and the victory over the destructive powers of the universe for the sake of mankind.

Apart from the notable exception that the Christmas story actually transpired in time and space, it is like those good legends that exist in world literature; it captures their essence. As C. S. Lewis put it, “If myth had ever become fact, it would be just like this.” These ancient tales tell us of mankind’s dreams and aspirations; Christmas tells us about God’s mighty act to fulfill them all. In Jesus Christ the myths are not so much abrogated as fulfilled. The Christmas story sounds like a myth because it was meant to. As J. R. R. Tolkien believed, it is the story that captures the truth of all fairy stories. It is the good news we all must hope is true.

In an earlier day, this connection of the Christmas story with myth and legend would have enhanced its plausibility. To many Western minds, however, it is just as likely to make it seem implausible. It is the skeptic’s delight to associate the two because he thinks it will certainly discredit the Christian message. But it does not. Instead, it can be the lever to break open what in the material explanation is a closed box. It can open us up to the realm of divine action and reality. How blind we have been recently to limit our vision of possible reality to the merely mechanical, when spiritual reality waits to be explored.

At least consider at this Christmas time that reality is not a pointless material process, but a creation open to its Maker and full of spiritual significance. The world of myth and symbol speaks of salvation and hope from beyond us, and in the event of the incarnate God in Bethlehem the promise is fulfilled and the power released.

But why was it necessary that the Child be born of a virgin? I suppose the answer would be that it was not “necessary,” although it was appropriate. The gospel writers who tell us of the miraculous conception do not attempt to give us any reasons why it was necessary that Jesus be virgin born. The impression they leave is that it was appropriate for an event of this magnitude to be marked by a sign. Christmas is, after all, the story of the grand miracle. As Queen Lucy put it in The Last Battle (The Chronicles of Narnia), “In our world too a stable once had something in it bigger than the whole world.”

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The birth of Jesus and the empty tomb together enclose and bracket the miracle of God’s salvation, which is his doing and not ours. The unique birth points emphatically to the divine son who here became man. It is the sign that accompanies the mystery of the Incarnation and marks it off from the way all other human lives begin. It is an act of divine omnipotence that stands behind the purpose of grace that prompted the Incarnation itself. I think it doubtful that anyone who denies or explains away this miracle takes with due seriousness the mystery of the Incarnation.

Jesus came to make us rich. Are we all enriched in him? We are not, if we remain self-centered and mean, bitter, and anxious, hostile.

His birth has not yet had its full desired effect in our experience. It is still needful for him to be born anew in our midst and make us rich. Christmas, that myth of myths, the myth made fact, has still its ancient power to heal and save and restore.

It can transform the life of anyone who, like Mary, will open himself to the gracious promise of God.

CLARK H. PINNOCKDr. Pinnock is professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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