It's Twelfth Night, or Three Kings, or time to put the seasonal displays away until the next Festive Season.
Andrew Greeley's alter ego, Bishop Blackie, likes to use the creche as a metaphor for Catholicism. Who is the baby? God. Who is Mary? God's Mother. Who are the shepherds? God's flock. That, indeed, was the message from this year's midnight services: to Caesar, the inhabitants of Judea were numbers to be enrolled, but what transpired outside that Bethlehem inn was all about succor for the common people, manifesting itself among the common people.
That might be sufficient for understanding why the story continues to have purchase. Yes, we can insist on the primacy of Easter and the dependence of the faith on resurrection. Or the more literal-minded among us can grouse about the temporal inconsistencies in the Christmas story. Or draw attention to the oppressions committed in the Defense of the Faith.
Rather, dear reader, consider the story as it emerged in the light of lived reality in the era it emerged. The oral tradition of Homer included references to gods taking an interest in the affairs of men, meddling, for instance, in the Trojan War. The Romans, to the best of my recollection, had abandoned traditions of human sacrifices, but such customs were still being practiced on the periphery of the empire: into the tenth century the Norsemen sacrificing nine men at nine year intervals comes to mind, and into the sixteenth century that was the practice of the dominant tribes of Central America. For that matter, isn't the jihadi's martyrdom by explosives a form of human sacrifice?
Thus, the tale of a god who takes human form with the assistance of a human mother, with the purpose of being sacrificed for the redemption of all human sins, then to undo the sacrifice after three days and later ascending into heaven, is likely to appeal to people aware of more pessimistic, or bloodthirsty, belief systems. Thus, one version of the communion service, in which the call-and response is "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast."
At the same time, it's a tale that is going to call for some intellectual exercise subsequently, so as to introduce notions such as Immaculate Conception (in order that the Mother of God is born without sin) and Trinity (in order that God the Father is not begetting God the Son in the usual way) and that will provoke skeptics.
That noted, you toss out an optimistic story, even an optimistic story that calls for great faith, at your peril. "December’s underlying message is one of mercy and goodwill towards others. The notion that the human condition is not only fragile but also redeemable, underpins the annual lesson of the holiday season." In its absence, Clay Routledge argues, the human condition might worsen. "The history of science is full of examples of science replacing old superstitions. But explaining the natural world is only one of religion’s functions. Ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning. This need is inherent, not learned. It is a fundamental component of the human condition." Or, perhaps, Toby Young suggests, Deep Thinkers replace one set of mysteries with another. Stereotype threat. Unconscious bias. Micro-aggressions.
But perhaps I, too, am over-thinking things. Look no further, dear reader, than what happens when the Word according to Karl, Friedrich, Vladimir, and Iosif is made Law. One hundred million heretics, er, enemies of the people, liquidated. Or perhaps consider whether Nietzsche declaring God dead might have been misunderstood and perverted by a later generation of Germans.
Deconstruct the good stories at your own risk.
The Festive Season is done. The review of Secular Follies will resume tomorrow.