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[Chalice] Extracting Meaning from the Christian Myth [Chalice]

Presented December 21, 2003, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

I'm afraid this Sunday's service is not going to be nearly as fun as last Sunday's. I really enjoyed the play put on by our young people and by our RE leaders and by so many of you, reenacting that famous story of the birth of the baby Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. But you know me I couldn't just enjoy the moment and the kids and the play. I was thinking about the various theological interpretations of the story of Jesus' birth. I am a philosopher after all and I am the minister of this church, so while the play was unfolding I was wondering how you all feel and think at Christmas, what your theology is, what you celebrate, how you would explain that this birth of this baby Jesus is especially significant, if indeed you think it is at all. Surely we would be as a congregation all over the theological territory on this question, and this morning I would like to map that territory at little, map only a few theological answers to this question and put some names on the map, in order to see where you would situate yourselves in relation to these answers and these names.

We could start with Aristotle, but for Aristotle you could substitute Pythagoras, Empedocles, Epicurus, even Marcus Aurelius, any of your classical pre-Christian philosophers. I just finished teaching the first half of our history of the western intellectual tradition, and in this course I explain to my Christian students that from the perspective of the Greek philosophers, the fact that the west turned in the direction of Christian faith and turned to believing in the Christian myth of God incarnating Himself in the form of a human being would be tremendously disappointing. Aristotle and the other Greek philosophers would have seen this as a regression to primitive mythology and a retreat from the responsibility to develop your rational faculties so you can understand the universe through reason and not through mythology. From the perspective of Greek wisdom, all of Christianity is something like a disastrous and wrong turn in the history of western civilization. There are some of you who must think this way at Christmastime and would agree with Aristotle that a developed and mature human being uses reason and does not resort to myth.

If, on the other hand, if you let yourself get carried along by the mythology of the Christmas season at least to a certain extent, you might end up in the company of that great 20th century Unitarian educator Sophia Lyon Fahs. Christianity gives us this myth of this special night, the star, the wise men, the kings come to worship the baby. The Christmas myth brings us into an attitude of reverence. When we live within this mythology we receive a renewed awareness that humanity itself is infinitely valuable, that each and every human life is not just capable of greatness through developing its own capacities like a good Aristotelian but that human life itself is holy. Not just the life of Jesus, but every human life is sacred, and every night a child is born is a holy night. I'm sure many of us in our church would have theological differences with traditional Christian conceptions about why this baby Jesus is important like no other human ever born, but I know many of you live within the mythology of this season celebrating the birth of Jesus and extend that to a celebration of all human life. The Chistmas season gives us a chance to live out just how much there is to celebrate with say, Zack and Zoe, or will all five of the beautiful kids in the family we have been trying to help out a little.

There are probably those in our community who celebrate this season with a spirit and a theology similar to Thomas Jefferson and William Emery Channing and to many of our 19th century Unitarian forefathers and mothers. Jefferson and Channing would have kept Christmas well, would have recognized much to celebrate during this season. To them, the birth of Jesus was an event of inestimable importance, but not because Jesus was a divine figure sent to rescue us from sin. To Jefferson and to Channing and to many Unitarians then and since, the birth of Jesus is a tremendous event in history because the essence of religion is to establish within oneself and between oneself and others moral perfection, and to them Jesus was the clearest, purest image of God's own moral perfection. We celebrate Jesus's birth, says Channing, not because he came to rescue us from damnation: "We believe he came on a nobler errand, to deliver us from sin itself, and to form us to a sublime and heavenly virtue. We regard him as a Saviour, chiefly as he is the light, physician, and guide of the dark, diseased and wandering mind. No influence in the universe seems to us so glorious, as that over character; and no redemption so worthy of thankfulness, as the restoration of the soul to purity." There may be some among us who celebrate the birth of Jesus because they have Channing's and Jefferson's profound sense that Jesus is the supreme guide and model of the spiritual and ethical life.

Or perhaps there are some among us who celebrate Christmas in the same spirit as the divine philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Jesus's name is not written but ploughed into history, says Emerson, because Jesus alone realized the mystery of who he was and who we can be. Jesus knew, says Emerson, that God incarnates Himself in humans. He taught the doctrine of our (and not only his) divine nature: "Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with an open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion: 'I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me, or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think." For Emerson, we celebrate Christmas because Christ is the great teacher of our own divine nature, and when we forget our own divine nature, a sickness overcomes our spirit and we whither and die. Jesus, says Emerson, "is the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of a man."

Another possible avenue for the spiritual life during the Christmas season is through the concept of the gift, as I was talking about after Thanksgiving. Here it does not matter if you can affix precisely the theological and Christological identity of who Jesus is. He could be the unique God/Man; he could be God's son in a way we could be too if we only realized it. He could be the model of ethical behavior and divine excellence. It doesn't really matter precisely who he is; the essential thing spiritually is that Jesus is given to the world as a gift. Jesus understood as God's pure gift opens up our understanding of the divine nature and how our world is related to God's being. Jesus understood as gift reveals the divine nature as ever flowing outward and ever giving itself in the always ongoing process of creation. The world is then understood not a world of nouns, of things that are mine and yours, but as a verb, as a continuing divine flowing outward, as God's spirit of loving gift always expanding, like the universe itself. If we understand the significance of the Christmas season and the Christian myth as divine gift, as within the order of the ever flowing forth of God's spirit which is creation itself, then perhaps we live the Christmas season in the spirit of that great Christian mystic of the 14th century Meister Eckhart, who once said: "I will tell you what I have never said before: God enjoys Himself. He loves giving Himself over and pouring Himself forth into all things."

And I cannot see the nativity performed as the kids did for us last week without remembering three 4rth century Eastern Orthodox figures referred to as the Cappodocian fathers, St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. Naziansus, whose opened up for thinking the concept of paradox. The birth of Jesus is from the perspective of Christianity the most important event in history, and yet it happens in the most humble, ordinary way. The savior lives without wealth, power, or influence. His birth is greeted with joy but he ends up reviled and cursed. His birth is a scene of peace, and yet he is put to death in a brutal way by a brutal empire. Christianity is a very theological and philosophical religion and has plenty of rationality within it, but the Christian myth itself defies reason and rationality and opens up the mind and heart to those aspects of life that confound the mind and contradict expectation. Not everything in human experience is rational, and perhaps the most important, meaningful aspects of human life, like friendship and love and even the self, are beyond reason, much as that possibility would be distasteful to Aristotle or Kant or lots of others.

One of my favorite parts of the nativity story and one of the spiritual aspects of the season most meaningful to me is the birth of Jesus as a scene of peace. Now this emphasis on peace is lived out through the peaceful interaction of humans and animals at the birth of Jesus. The time of the Messiah according to the prophecy of Isaiah will be the time when the lion lies down with the lamb, and though the Biblical accounts mention no animals, animals are lying peacefully next to Jesus in the nativity scene. We reenacted it this way last week, as some of you were sheep, cows, and even pigs, though I think were a Midwestern innovation in the story. The point is that even animals understand the significance of this event and respond to the peaceful event of the birth of the baby peacefully. Some times people ask me if I am a dog person or a cat person. I'm a cats and dogs living together in the same house peacefully person. When I wake up and see the cat sleeping peacefully on the dog, my day begins with peace, an attitude I try to carry with me throughout the day. The Christian myth immerses one in peace, and also in the experience of the lack of peace and the opposite of peace, since we know that Christianity as a religion has often brought violence and war to the world, and the baby born in peace not only suffers a violent end himself but actually as a grown man says to the world in exasperation, and again noticing how animals can be more peaceful than humans, says: "Like a mother hen gathering her chicks I wanted to gather you and teach you the things that make for peace, but you would not!"

And last but not least, the contemporary European philosopher Luce Irigirary, in thinking about the nativity scene, has pointed out that in the Gospel of Matthew God tells Joseph in a dream what is happening with the miraculous conception of Jesus, but in the gospel of Luke God not only sends an angel to talk to Mary directly but also gives Mary time and space to react to and think about for herself this great event. The gospel of Luke says when the angel first announces the news "She pondered these things in her heart." Mary is not simply obedient, as is Joseph when God tells him what is going on. She doesn't just click her heels like a good soldier and do whatever she is told by her superior, as does Joseph in Matthew's account. She has to think, she has to feel, she has to process, and God honors that process. God understands that women tend to be different, tend to be more feeling, tend to need their own space, and instead of not recognizing that, or growing impatient, as men tend to do, or instead of wanting Mary to simply be like Joseph and respond the way he does, God respects how women are different and even loves the difference between men and women.

©2003 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2003. Extracting Meaning from the Christian Myth, (accessed July 4, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.