Like many who teach the New Testament to university students, I am accustomed to being ignored by the press every season of the year except Easter and Christmas. Then, I receive the inevitable phone calls from the press: "What's new about the resurrection?" "Anything new on Christmas?" What the reporters want to hear about is some new historical discovery, preferably something that calls into the question the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and death. At this time of year the focus is always on the miracle of Jesus' conception and birth. Is there any new research that proves it couldn't have really happened? My answer never varies: "The same thing is new now as when Jesus was born and Jesus was raised," I say, "and that is good news from God." Small wonder that I get fewer such calls every year.
Newspapers sell because they can provide novel variations on the same old themes of a tired world: envy, exploitation, rivalry, oppression, competition, violence, exclusion, murder. Newspapers specialize in identifying concrete problems and revealing concrete secrets. But newspapers do not comprehend mystery.
Indeed, most of us who are readers of newspapers and watchers of television and computer screens--we who live in the modern world with its focus on the concrete and the scientifically and historically verifiable--have lost the sense of mystery as well. Even those among us who want to be religious find ourselves co-opted by the universal pragmatism of commerce, seduced by the shiny and efficient surfaces of efficiency and profit. We find it hard to resist the message of every jingle, every ad, that Christmas is about going to the mall. Commerce is the quintessential trafficker in the concrete and the verifiable: we can hear the coins jingling in our pockets, feel the comfort that economic security gives so many of us.
Christmas, however, is not about fueling the national economy or meeting societal expectations. It is about a mystery so large and yet so quiet that even when it has been revealed--in the Gospels--it cannot be comprehended. Still less can it be measured by the modern-day yardsticks--science, history, pragmatism--that measure the concrete so efficiently, although it is no less real than anything the newspapers report about.
The mystery is simply that God enters humankind and makes it new. The gift-giving that defines Christmas is this very exchange in which God and human beings embrace. The language of history--the concrete data that reporters look for--is inadequate to describe this, for all history can ever do is record the surface of human events. Another kind of language is needed, the language of myth, to express what lies beneath the surface of things, yet is most true. We are accustomed to thinking of myths as fairy tales, fanciful explanations for events devised by primitive people who do not have access to modern science or modern historical methodology. We assume that every myth masks some kernel of concrete reality, when it is in fact the other way around: that underneath the world of the concrete lies another reality that is just as palpable but is only available obliquely, through song and story--like those Gospel tales of Jesus' birth that seem so fanciful yet ring so true. Myth offers another, deeper way of knowing what is real.
The language of history--like the language of newspapers--can speak only surface sameness, while the language of myth can sing the sweet song of transformation deep down in things. Christians who have not lost their wits in this age's onslaught of the concrete appreciate that the Christmas story is true precisely because it is mythic, is told in the language of archetype. If the Christmas story were simply a historical report, it could also only be about human experiences on the concrete surface of reality. But the Christmas story is a story of God at work, and to speak of God one must use other than historical language.
To speak the inexpressible truth that God embraces humankind by becoming human in Jesus, even the mythic language of the Gospels strains the limit of paradox: a virgin conceives and gives birth, the night becomes as bright as day, shepherds in fields and magicians from afar gather in silent awe as the creator of the universe becomes small in a child. God embraces humankind not in King Herod but in David's lowliest descendant, not in merchants and entrepreneurs but in the poor and despised. God chose to renew the world not through armies or politics or commerce, but by living the simplest of human lives, beginning with the simplest of human processes, the birth of a baby. God's interest is not in political or economic arrangements but in the transformation of human existence. God's power is to be seen not in Herod's ability to slaughter little children, but in the Virgin Mary's care to caress and comfort her baby.
So I am reminded each year when the reporters call that if I want to see the signs of God's renewal of the world, I should not seek them by scanning headlines or surfing channels in search of the concrete. I should rather learn again how to stop and be silent. I should learn to wait for surface distraction to cease for at least a moment so that I might enter that deeper reality that my busyness serves to deny.
By becoming silent, by holding still, I might notice again the way a tiny baby grasps its father's finger and gazes at its mother's face. And if I learn to see that way, noticing what is truly real rather than what plays on the surface, I could again tell the difference between secrets and mysteries, between change and transformation, between old gossip and good news.