Monday, December 11, 2006

Magic of the Season for Skeptics

A question I sometimes get is, "is it possible that Mary told Luke and/or Matthew about the Annunciation and Nativity?" I get the sense that the question is a way of trying to verify the accuracy of the Gospel accounts.

Sadly, I can never confirm the historical accuracy of the birth narratives. Luke and Matthew wrote their stories over 50 years after the execution of Jesus. Luke was a disciple of the Apostle Paul; I have no reason to believe that he ever met Mary. His account differs significantly from Matthew's, and no one else in our canon mention's Jesus' birth at all. Jesus is never quoted as having mentioned it. And as far the unique circumstance of Jesus being conceived by a virgin, well, the story isn't terribly unique (not to mention biologically impossible).

Our modern, scientific understanding of procreation is only about 300 years old, so a writer in the first century of the common era wouldn't necessarily have found the idea of virginal conception as ridiculous as we might today. Also, many ancient stories, some older than the ones in our bible, refer to heroes being born to virgins. So, the story is neither plausible nor unique.

If the importance of the story rests on its believability, we're in trouble (though, to be sure, we are free to believe the story if we can, but modern readers will often find the story problematic as literal history). For me the importance of the story isn't its historical accuracy, but its sacred truth.

The truth, as I see it, is that Jesus lived a life that empowered, healed, and enriched other lives. To bear witness to the power of Jesus' life, writers created amazing stories casting Jesus in the role of God's chosen and anointed prophet. The truth in the stories is that they point to Jesus' significance. The truth is that Jesus touched lives in an important way, and continues to do so. The stories are creative, artistic attempts to communicate that truth. So, for me, the stories are true if not factual.

I know this is a season of magic and miracle and warm feelings and deep sentiments. I know for many of us, the magic of Christmas that we experienced as children is something we want to recapture. But if the only way to hold that magic is to not allow ourselves to think critically, then the magic may allude us anyway. For me, the magic doesn't depend on the details, but on the inspiration for the imaginative accounts. The inspiration is a man called Jesus, who showed us that we can each experience the divine personally and powerfully in ways that will transform our lives. That is true even if Jesus was born like you and I were, loved as you and I do, and died as all living creatures must.

Still, Jesus did impact people's lives so powerfully that they needed to tell his story as creatively and imaginatively as possible, and because of those stories he lives on in our hearts two millennia later. That is magic enough for me. And it doesn't deny that Jesus is the reason for the season.

Today's blog was first sent out to my subscription list and posted on my website:

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