THE DOGMA IN THE MANGER
For well over a millennium and a half after the birth of Jesus, the holly, the ivy, decorating homes, the evergreen tree, mistletoe, gift giving, snow, sleigh bells, Santa Claus and reindeer had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas.
It used to be said that people who knew nothing else about Jesus knew he was born on 25 December. But in all the debates about Christmas that have waged back and forth in recent years perhaps the only reasonably certain thing is that whenever Jesus was born it was most likely not on December 25, nor even at this time of the year.
So we're left with a paradox: the birth of this being was a momentous event for the whole of humanity, yet almost all of the customs, rituals and practices, and even the date, that mark this festival today, had nothing at all to do with the original event.
A pagan reveler at the old Roman Festival of Saturnalia would find it quite a stretch to feel at home in our modern Christmas celebrations, but an ancient Northern European pagan would fit right in. All the elements of the ancient northern European solstice festivals such as Yule, are there, holly, ivy, and mistletoe decorating the homes, the evergreen tree, the Yule log, and gift giving. And long before St. Nikolaus ever gave a child a single gift, the chief Norse God Odin rode across the heavens at the Winter solstice on his eight legged steed, Sleipnir. The children hung their boots or socks on the chimneys filled with food for Odin's horse, and in gratitude Odin filled their boots with gifts.
Christmas and the Solstice.
With all due respect to modern productions such as 'The Da Vinci Code' and "Zeitgeist" it is highly unlikely that the early church hijacked the Roman Midwinter Festival of Saturnalia, and the birthdays of gods such as Dionysius, Attis and Osiris on 25 December, in order to put the celebration of the Birthday of Jesus in their place. Saturnalia was first inaugurated only in 217 AD and was celebrated on 17 December. It later extended to a full week of celebration ending on 23 December, but it was never a Solstice celebration, which in the time of Jesus was on December 25th. The birthdays of gods such as Dionysius and Osiris were only moved to 25 December from their previous place in midsummer in 274 AD, so if Christianity copied the date it was certainly not from there.
Solstice comes from two Latin words, sol meaning sun, and sistere meaning to be motionless or to stand still. The winter solstice is the moment when the sun appears to stand still in the sky before beginning its ascent again. The solstice is only a moment in time, the instant when the earth's axis is tilted farthest away from the sun at an angle of 23 degrees and 26 seconds, but colloquially we use the term to refer to the entire day on which the solstice occurs.
Everybody can rattle off that the winter solstice in the north occurs on 21 December, the shortest day of the year, and that is the day when the sun sets earliest. But the solstice occurs at a different time every year, not always on 21 December, and unexpectedly, the Winter solstice is not the day when the sun sets earliest. In the Julian Calendar in use at the time of Jesus the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere occurred around 25 December. In our modern calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 the Winter solstice in the northern hemisphere each year occurs some time between December 21 and 22 and in the southern hemisphere between 20 or 21 June.
For example in 2009 the northern Winter solstice occurs on 21 December at 9.47 a.m. Pacific Time, (or 5.47 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, which for casual use here we can consider to be the same as UTC). However in 2011 the northern Winter solstice will occur on 22 December at 5.30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. In addition, because the earth's orbit is elliptical not circular the earliest sunset of Winter does not fall exactly on the solstice. Back in the days when starvation in the months between Midwinter and the dawn of Spring was always a possibility the celebration of Midwinter was a far more serious thing than it could ever be for us today. The harvest would have been gathered, and as many as possible of the livestock were slaughtered to conserve food stock during the winter when grazing was difficult or impossible. It was probably one of the few times of year when fresh meat was readily available.
Given that the celebration of Midwinter was based on observing the waning presence of the sun in the sky and its return, it's easy to see why sun gods' deaths and rebirths were celebrated at this time in almost every culture. In fact this celebration and its rituals were tailor-made to symbolize the way the dominant group in early Christianity had come to misunderstand the mission and role of Jesus.
It was belief in "The Integral Age" (see an earlier article on my website, "Calculating Christmas Day" for an explanation of this belief) as well as the powerful significance of the event of the solstice itself, rather than any slavish copying of the pagan festivals or gods' birthdays, that caused the Feast of Christmas eventually to find its home there.
The Birth of Jesus and the Gospels.
Of the four New Testament Gospels, two, Mark and John, say nothing at all about the birth or childhood of Jesus. The other two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, give an account of his birth but there are significant differences between them, and they have hardly anything at all in common.
Dating the composition of the Gospels is of course an enormously difficult matter but if we accept the view favored by a large number of biblical experts today the Gospels of Matthew and Luke would date from about 80-85 AD, quite a long time after the birth they were describing. Most serous biblical scholars today would also incline to the view that there isn't a single word in the New Testament Gospels directly written by anyone who knew Jesus personally.
The Gospels circulated anonymously for almost a century. Their attribution to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John appeared in writing quite suddenly for the first time only in 180 AD.
It is generally accepted that Matthew is earlier than Luke. Matthew says that an angel whose name is not given announced the birth of Jesus to Joseph in a dream. In disagreement Luke says it was told to Mary while she was awake, and by the Angel Gabriel. That Jesus was born in Bethlehem is the only item in the whole infancy story on which they agree.
Matthew is the only Gospel to mention the visit of the three Magi or Wise Men, just as he is the only source for the information that the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt from the massacre of the Innocents under King Herod.
Luke tells us that the birth of Jesus was announced by angels to shepherds out in the fields and that they sang the 'Gloria" to herald the event. He is the only one to tell us that the shepherds came to visit Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in a manger. He also is the only one to tell us that the child is circumcised and named 'Jesus' and that he is presented in the Temple. Luke is also the only Gospel to tell us that Jesus came to the Temple at twelve years of age. It is also fairly obvious that Luke's account is at least reminiscent of, or is perhaps modeled on, the accounts of the birth of Samson in Judges 13, and the birth of Samuel in 1 Samuel 1-2.
Both of these witnesses, Matthew and Luke, in the documents we have before us, are writing approximately eight decades after the event. The birth of Jesus was as far from them then as the great 1929 Wall Street crash is from us today. The atmosphere of Matthew's Gospel is intrigue, politics, massacre, fear and difficulties. The atmosphere of Luke concentrates on glory, joy, praise and faith. When all is said and done this is probably where their greatest difference lies.
The Dying and Resurrecting Saviors and Christmas.
Its been pointed out almost endlessly in recent times that a series of about a dozen dying and resurrecting saviors were the stock in trade of the ancient pagan religions centuries before the birth of Jesus. We can see this, for example, in relation to Dionysius (Greece), Osiris (Egypt), Attis (Asia Minor), Adonis (Syria), and Bacchus (Persia).
This series of god-men all across these territories of the ancient world often had some of the following or similar features in common:
1. All of them are God made flesh.
2. Their fathers are gods, their mothers are virgin humans.
3. They were all born in a cave or cow shelter.
4. Shepherds came to witness shortly after the birth.
5. Each triumphantly entered a city on a donkey while people waved palm branches.
6. Each changed water into wine at a wedding.
7. Each offers a re-birth through the waters of baptism.
8. Each dies and descends to the realm of the dead, Hades.
9. Each ascends into Heaven.
10. Their followers await their return to judge the world.
11. Their death and resurrection are remembered in a ritual meal of bread, wine and water,
which are their body and blood.
Early Christianity and the Reality of Bethlehem.
I described in my DVD "How Jesus Became a Christ" that the form of early Christianity was very different from what we normally consider it to be. It was not one monolithic movement with an homogenous set of beliefs and practices, for the reality of what Jesus was was rich enough to provide many different, indeed conflicting, sets of understanding him, his message and purpose.
In the main there were five large groups who views varied widely from one another. The Ebionites, who came from James the Just, brother of Jesus, held fast to the Jewish dietary laws and circumcision as they saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise of a Jewish Messiah and the leader of a revivified Judaism. The Marcionites pushed Paul's antithesis between Law and Gospel to extremes, so much so that they came to believe in two Gods, one who created the world, the other utterly transcendent of the physical. The third group were the Gnostics, if it is legitimate to use one umbrella term from much more modern times to describe a multitude of similar groupings. For the Gnostics the world is a cosmic catastrophe and we are sparks of the divine imprisoned in matter. The way out is through a special knowledge which Jesus came to teach us.
The Cain-ites revered what we might today call the anti-heroes of both Old and New Testaments, such as Cain, who murdered his brother, and Judas who betrayed Jesus. They believed such individuals challenged Jehovah, whom they regarded as a harsh and judgmental God, and not to be identified with the Creator.
The fifth and final major group I like to call the Yom Kippur Party. They saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Yom Kippur in which a spotless lamb and spotless goat are introduced to stand in our place and bear the weight of our sins. In the Yom Kippur celebrations the goat was laden up with symbolic baggage representing the burden of our sins, and driven out into the desert to be devoured by wild beasts, while the spotless lamb was sacrificed on the altar of the Temple, its blood washing away our sin and guilt.
With the passage of time the emphasis on sin and guilt and the fear of punishment escalated within the Yom Kippur group. They fiercely contested views that did not agree with their own version of events, and they took no prisoners. By that I mean they were violently intolerant of any views that differed from their own. By 313 when the Emperors Constantine and Licinius decreed the toleration of Christianity with the Edict of Milan, the Yom Kippur Party had become identified with Christianity for all intents and purposes, and that is the tradition of interpretation of the reality and message of Jesus that has endured.
In 316 Constantine marched an army against a community of Christians whose views those in positions of religious authority had deemed to be in heresy. It was the first time that debates about Christian beliefs had been decided by force of arms, but unfortunately it was only the beginning.
Constantine firmly set that tradition in place when he called the First Council of Nicea in 325. The main issue before the Council was to resolve disagreements about Jesus, in particular about how he related to God the Father, and whether he was a literal Son of God or only symbolically so as so many "sons of God" in the Old Testament had been. It was asserted that even though there was only one God, there were three persons in God. The Council discussed in intensely convoluted sets of reasoning how those 'persons' related to each other and to Jesus. Much of the time was spent trying to explain how Jesus could be both human and divine, and how God could be both one and at the same time three. It was questions like these that perplexed Christianity for the next four centuries and they provide an excellent example of the convolutions in debate that must be gone through when the original presuppositions are wrong but never questioned.
The conclusions of Constantine's Council were set out in the Creed of Nicea, and Constantine announced that he would banish any bishop who did not sign the agreement. Only two did not, Theronas and Secundus, and they were banished from their episcopal sees and sent into exile.
Arius was the principal theologian who maintained that Jesus was an extraordinary human person, who had been born in the stable at Bethlehem as every other human being had been born. His books were burned in public and possession of them henceforth carried the death penalty. Thus it was that what became Christianity got into the bad habit of functioning as an armed doctrine.
That is what has shaped the way the world thinks of Jesus now, including how we think of him at his birth at Christmas. It was the Yom Kippur Party who accommodated him to the beliefs of the mystery religions and their convoluted paraphernalia for dealing with human sin, guilt and the fear of punishment. That is how he was turned into the suffering savior who was born in the stable at Bethlehem as a fully formed divine being, whose purpose was to suffer and die for our sins to avert the anger of a savage God. By that stage most of the other views of Jesus in early Christianity had been stamped out. The intensity of the persecution can be gauged from looking at the fate of the Gospel of Thomas. It was a very well known and massively influential document in early Christianity, which portrayed a radically different account of what Jesus was and taught. It had been so fiercely persecuted by the Yom Kippur Party that the copy found among the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi in lower Egypt in 1946, is the only copy known to have survived.
The Deeper Mysteries of Christmas.
However, even if we celebrate Christmas on the wrong date, and even if there has been a considerable re-working of the original facts surrounding the birth of Jesus, and even if Christianity for many centuries was loath to celebrate his birth at all, its nevertheless vital to remember that the celebration does commemorate something of enormous importance in the make up of every human being, and that is where the deeper mysteries of Christmas lie. It is also where the greatest and most tragic losses can occur in our understanding of ourselves and our purposes here.
That is what the birth of Jesus heralded. The dogmas that grew up around the child in the manger no doubt were intended to exalt him, in fact they ended up obscuring the heart of what that extraordinary life was really all about. And it is you and I who are the losers in that process, not Jesus.
Jesus said: "Woe to the Pharisees. They are like a dog sleeping in the manger of the cattle, for he neither eats, nor does he let the cattle eat." (Gospel of Thomas, 102).
As already mentioned two of the Gospels of the New Testament have no account of either the birth or childhood of Jesus, and even the two that do give accounts that are skimpy and not entirely consistent. Given that they were written approximately sixty to eighty years or more after his birth that is not surprising.
But all four of the New Testament Gospels entirely omit any mention, consistent or inconsistent, of the vast majority of the life of Jesus; for ninety per cent of his story is missing from the pages of the New Testament. That's much more likely the product of the dogma surrounding the manger than any accidental omission; much more an inability to move out of the box of traditional first century religious forms to see an entirely different reality and hope; an exercise in political correctness rather than faulty scholarship.
The tradition of formal dogmas which began with Constantine were designed to try to answer a set of fundamentally unanswerable questions that were posed by seeing the baby in the manger at Bethlehem as a fully fledged divine-human being in the terms in which divine and human were then understood. The dogmas that grew up around the humble beginnings of the birth of Jesus, have focused almost entirely on proving that he was entirely unique. He had to be seen as belonging to an entirely different plane than anyone else who was ever born. He had to have brought a totally new understanding of God that was never there before. We are taught that he brought entirely new ideas and concepts about how people were related to God and what they were in this world to do. This very simply is not a position that can stand up to the scrutiny of history, for all of those very ideas and concepts had predated Christianity by at least several centuries. But what is much more important is to realize that this kind of uniqueness had nothing at all to do with what Jesus was and what he was about during his extraordinary life. His was an entirely different kind of uniqueness.
The dogmas that have formed around the birth of Jesus concealed his true greatness under the guise of exalting him. Those who formulated the dogmas have made themselves the dogs in the manger, for they would not drink of the fountain of truth that he brought, but instead rebuilt Jesus from the ground up according to the customs, practices and stories of the ancient Mystery Religions and the beliefs surrounding Yom Kippur.
Trying to prove Jesus was unique in that sense will lead nowhere except to the construction of an idol to be worshipped, and most emphatically that was not why he came into the world. He came to become an ideal to be imitated, and there is where his uniqueness lies. The dogmas that grew up around the child in the manger were quickly matched by the dogmas of a similar trend that were erected around the remainder of his life so that uniqueness could not be seen.
The mysterious eighteen year period when he went missing from the New Testament Gospels is glossed over, and yet those years are what reveal the deepest mysteries of Christmas . It was in these eighteen years of his journeys through Egypt, India and Tibet that he learned what he came here to exemplify in an extraordinary way: to blaze a trail that every man and woman who has ever walked this earth could follow, that is to draw out the eternal and the divine from within us. Then, as he himself promised, we would do all the wonders he did and greater. The dogmas in the manger always begrudge to others precisely what the formulators and retailers of the dogmas are unwilling to partake of themselves. As a result no one else is allowed to participate. This is always what eventually happens when opinion is asserted as fact.
So is Christmas just a harmless set of charming old beliefs and naïve practices that the merchants have hijacked and nothing more? On the contrary; Christmas celebrates something of profound importance that lies at the heart of what every human person is, but the dogmas have made that very difficult to see, much less to appropriate for ourselves.
Whether we have the date of Christmas right or wrong, and even if the practices and symbols like the Christmas Tree and Santa, are ancient pagan or relatively modern accretions, is really very much beside the point. We have long transcended those ancient rituals and practices and imbued them with new significance and meaning. Concealed behind the dogmas and the more modern customs and forms that we associate with Christmas lie awesome truths which Jesus Christ came to reveal to us all. That opens the door to the true mysteries that the birth of Jesus heralded and that responds to the most ancient of human yearnings, freedom at last from the plethora of weaknesses, misfortune and powerlessness which has been the plague of humanity for endless ages. What we commemorate at Christmas is the birth of a child, who became a man, and who grew to show us how to become someone "in whom the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell."
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