DAVID RICKEY — As I approach Christmas, I find myself asking the question normally reserved for Passover: Why is this night different from all other nights? What is it about the sacred Christmas story that so engages us?
I don’t believe any of the “events” described in the Christmas story. There are actually three stories that don’t agree but are brought together to make the Creche scene complete. The wise men, or Magi, come from Matthew. The Shepherds and sheep come from Luke. The stable is Luke, while Matthew has Jesus born in a house. John just gets philosophical, and Mark doesn’t even mention the birth at all.
But these are not historical stories, even if the authors believed they were. They are myths in the deepest sense, just as Joseph Campbell would have described them. My working definition of myth here is “a culturally shaped story that attempts to express awareness of a mystery.” The story isn’t true. The myth hints, successfully I believe, at Truth.
It’s like looking back at 2010. The world has a mental slideshow of countless events, including natural and ecological disasters. But one story we’ll enjoy clinging to might be that of the rescued Chilean miners. Not the whole truth of it – the sights, sounds, smells and terror the miners must have experienced – but the mythical, rectangular image we saw on our TV or computer screens, of sooty, bare-chested men doing the sign of the cross, citizens with flags, and hugs and tears of joy.
For me, the best part of Christmas is the music. Not Jingle Bells or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas but the more mystical music, the kind that takes you into the mystery from a deep level of your soul and bypasses the rational – just as Christmas does.
The Great Mystery
Christmas speaks of God becoming Human. I translate this as human beings intuiting how connected they really are to the divine. In fact, God doesn’t become human. Humans are fundamentally Divine. But the mind of the 1st century Jew couldn’t conceive of that, so the authors wrote a story that brought the Divine and human together, apparently for the first time.
This is “The Great Mystery” or “Magnum Mysterium.” We’re not supposed to “get it,” but experience it. That’s what happens when I listen to O Magnum Mysterium, such as the one composed by Tomas Luis de la Victoria and performed by Chanticleer or even better, the one composed by Jacob Handl (also known as Jacobus Gallus) and here performed by The Slovene Madrigalist Chamber Choir. The mystery is still evident in Morten Lauridsen’s 20th Century version sung by the Dale Warland Singers.
The world was a frightening place when Jesus was born, and in many ways it still is. As we grow more capable of comprehending the universe, we may feel more and more insignificant and downright puny. But at Christmas, the stars seem somehow closer and even meaningful. The myth and the magical give us a sense of connection, that the world is less hostile and perhaps even friendly.
The story of Herod and massacre resonates in our own time as well, but as we hear of the pilgrimage of Mary, Joseph and the Child – Peregranacion, in Spanish – that desperate voyage feels less dangerous, even delightful, especially when sung by the King’s Singers.
The arrival of the Magi (root of the word Magical) becomes our own story of awe, devotion and calling, especially in the words of G. K. Chesterton set to music by Herbert Howells and sung by Chanticleer.
May the myth, music and magic of Christmas bring out your divine truth.
David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.
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