And thou (Muhammad) shalt assuredly find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ to be the nearest of them in love to the believers. That is because amongst them are savants and monks and because they are not proud. (Al Quran 5:83)
By Jay Parini
(CNN) — As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace was supposedly born just over 2,000 years ago. Countless Christians — some devout, others wedded to force of habit — arrive at a vast array of churches that represent one of the thousands of known denominations. Indeed, the World Christian Encyclopedia suggests that over 33,820 denominations can be identified in almost 200 countries. That’s a lot of splintering over two millennia!
Still, it’s difficult to keep in mind that Christmas is a religious and not a shopping thing, and retailers deck the halls with whatever it takes to draw you in: candy canes, evergreen wreaths, mangers, images of Santa, Frosty the Snowman, you name it.
The loudspeakers in malls throb with lousy holiday Muzak: “Sleigh bells ring. Are you listenin?” In fact, Christmas is as much a secular event as a spiritual one, a civil holiday that accounts for over 19% of yearly retail sales; that translated to $3 trillion in sales last year.
For purveyors of goods, there is every reason to believe in Christmas.
But what do Christians who take their religion seriously really think about Christmas? Most of them, I suspect, don’t think about it much.
They enjoy the lead-up to the day itself — the sense of expectation — in the month before Christmas, a time known as Advent, with its special hymns and prayers. The rhythms of the so-called Church Year are heavily dependent on Christmas, with the 25th of December as a peak of sorts — a moment of hope that comes at the darkest time of the year, not incidentally related to winter solstice, a calendar moment when the day is shortest, the night longest, at least in the Northern Hemisphere.
In fact, midwinter festivals, including Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, were broadly celebrated in ancient Rome. In ancient Egypt, there was a festival that marked the birth of a child sun-god, Horus, whose mother (called Isis) was a virgin. Indeed, this child was “laid in a manger,” one of many similarities with the Christmas story.
Scholars have been all over this, going back to one of the earliest Christian writers, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, who noted the similarities. (The details of this connection will be found in a recent book by Barbara G. Walker and D.M. Murdock, “Man Made God: A Collection of Essays”.)
There is just no doubt that ancient cultures felt a strong need to proclaim the season of a new “sun,” the start of the fresh agricultural and astrological season that signaled hope “in the bleak midwinter,” as the beautiful Christian hymn puts it well.
But the earliest Christian writer, the Apostle Paul, whose writings precede the four Gospels by decades, seems never to have heard of Christmas. Although his many famous letters occupy a large space in the New Testament, Paul fails to mention even once the manger in Bethlehem, the hovering star, the wise men, angels keeping watch over their flocks by night, Joseph and Mary on the run — anything that we normally associate with this major church festival.
Why is this? Was the early Christian church wholly unaware of the origins of Jesus?
It’s worth noting that the earliest of the gospels, Mark, makes no mention whatsoever of Christmas. Nor does the fourth Gospel, John, where the only vague allusion to the origins of Jesus occurs in the opening hymn, where we read: “In the beginning was the Word.” No manger, no hovering star. Nothing but this haunting mystical Greek hymn about “the Word,” which in Greek is logos, one of the least translatable of Greek words and one that I would myself translate as “understanding.”
But there was, among early Christian gatherings, a strong need to have a myth of origins, a story about the beginnings of the man who ultimately became the Messiah, the Christ. Probably drawing on Persian myths, Matthew and Luke came up with Christmas stories that have almost nothing in common. They can’t be reconciled, in fact.