Hark! the Herald Angels sing/ "Bultmann is the latest thing."/ Or they would if he had not / Demythologised the lot! Nowadays, when bishops of Durham have become noteworthy for activities other than disbelief, the late Dr Eric Mascall's cheering carol might seem a little dated.
But, even in the absence of Dr Jenkins, the debunking of the Christmas story is still an expanding clerical industry. There were, you will be told, in no end of daringly relevant Christmas sermons from clergy of the established church, no shepherds, no wise men, and certainly no unidentified flying objects. In a world which has "come of age", reasonable people cannot stomach such superstitions any more.
But, interestingly, you are unlikely to be peddled as an alternative the sparse "de-mythology" which Mascall mocked. Liberal Christians (let the casual churchgoer note!) have passed through de-mythologisation to embrace a technique altogether more enterprising. Re-mythologisation is now the name of the game. You may notice this year, at Midnight Masses, Crib Services and the like, a new mood. Following on from familiar recastings of the narrative - which have for years made of the doctrine of the Incarnation a mere photo-opportunity for Oxfam - come new emphases. The politically correct Christmas is upon us.
The re-mythologisation of Christmas (a part of the wider process of re-mythologising Christianity itself) involves what one of its American proponents has described as a "recalibration of perceptions". It is held to be self-evident that the Christmas story, giving, as it does, undue prominence to childbirth and motherhood, contributes to the "invisibility" of women. And the assertion that the Lord was virgin-born is said to lend further credibility to the unacceptable notion that God is masculine.
The theologian Daphne Hampson, now outside the Christian community, puts succinctly what countless other voices within it are striving to express. "It struck me as incongruous," she writes, "when I heard of a parish in a commuter town south of London, which was to enact a nativity play. What had those educated women in that church, many of them with responsible jobs in London, in common with that story?"
Nativity plays, of course, for various age-groups and in various communities, do not seem "incongruous" to many thousands who watch them and who take part in them every year. They speak to them of eternal verities. But for Hampson that is beside the point. She found that nativity play "incongruous" simply because of an a priori assumption on her own part that motherhood is and ought to be a less central and fulfilling role for a woman than a responsible job with the National Westminster Bank. The age-old tale was one she did not want to hear.
In the past those who have rejected as mythological the claims of Christianity have simply ceased to be "religious" people. They have become post-Christian in the most literal and understandable sense. Or, like Robin Lane Fox (whose very readable book The Unauthorised Version gives as clear a summary of the arguments against the historicity of the nativity stories as you will find anywhere), they have kept an elegant distance.
But no longer. Under the guise of demythologisation - the disentangling of a supposed essential message (or kerygma) from the embarrassing superfluities of language and imagery to which the first century was heir - the attempt is now being made to createa new and altogether more amenable religion. From the naming of God to the role of Mary, from Chalcedon to Bethlehem, changes are being proposed which would, if accepted by the mainstream of churches, render Christianity unrecognisable.
It may seem far-fetched to portray the nativity plays of our primary schools as a battleground of conflicting ideologies; but increasingly they are destined to become so. For Christmas, in truth, has always been a battleground of ideologies, where pagan and Christian, Nordic and Middle Eastern elements vie for supremacy. It has always been uncertain, at any moment, which had the upper hand.
Up until now the battle has been a collision of mythologies; and as such, fairly even- handed. But the demythologisers have introduced a new element; a weapon that will end the war conclusively for one side. For, as the literary critic Northrop Frye succinctly puts it: "To demythologise any part of the Bible would be the same thing as to obliterate it." Leaving the field open, of course, for the re-mythologisers.
"Was Europe ever Christian?" asks Anton Wessels in a new book from SCM (for long virtually the official publishing house of the demythologising faction). We must wait and see.
Last month I spent a week's holiday in Florence. The churches and museums are full of pictures of the archangel Gabriel and Mary - a scene which is also recalled in our Christmas carols.
"The angel Gabriel from heaven came . . ."
Those pictures have a common pattern. On one side there stands (or flies) Gabriel. He is speaking to Mary. Out of his mouth come the words with which their meeting begins. In Latin "Ave Maria, gratia plena!" In English, "Hail Mary, full of grace!" or, inthe familiar words of the Authorised Version, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured!" On the other side of the picture stands Mary. Sometimes she too has a "speech-bubble" coming out of her mouth. Her words are the conclusion of their meeting: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word."
The whole story is included in those words. First, Gabriel is saying to Mary that she has been chosen, and that God has given her all the grace and help she needs for being the mother of his Son on earth. Mary's response is to accept what is asked of her. The salvation of the world turns on this conversation - on God's choosing of Mary and Mary's Yes to God's choice. In St Luke's Gospel, from which this story comes, Mary is portrayed again and again as a model of faith. She is the one above all who hears the word of God and keeps it in her head. That is why the Church thinks of Mary as the mother of all who believe in her Son.
So the story in the Gospel is not only about Mary. It is also about us. God had a task for Mary, for which he prepared her and which only she could do. Similarly, he has a task in life for each of us, for which we alone are prepared and chosen, and whichwe alone can do. If we do not do it, God will find a way round, but still our particular piece of work, the piece which we and nobody else could do, will remain undone.
Of course Mary was free to say Yes or No. But the kind of person she was meant that she was sure to say Yes. That is because of the choices she had made in the past and because of the way she had responded to God's grace. She was indeed full of grace.
We too are free to say Yes or No at every stage of our life, and our readiness to say Yes is also formed by the choices we have made, and by how we have responded to God's grace in the past.
At every moment there is response to be made. At every moment we can think of God's angel standing beside us and addressing us in the words that were spoken to Mary: "Hail, thou that art highly favoured!"
God may be hidden from our sight, but he is never absent. At every moment he presents us with something to do, and at every moment we can respond or fail to respond.
Mary is always our mother and our model. Because she heard and accepted what God was asking of her, she was able to fulfil her role of bearing the Son of God in her womb and bringing him into the world. We too have to attend to whatever it is that God isasking of us. We too have to hear the word of God and keep it, and in a sense become pregnant with it, so that in due time the Son of God may be able to show his face in the world through us - through the things we do, the things we say, the things we endure.
Always at this time of year I find myself pondering the familiar words: "O holy child of Bethlehem,/ descend to us, we pray;/ cast out our sin, and enter in,/ be born in us today."
That is what Christmas is about. Not only about Christ being born of Mary, but also about Christ being born in us.
Mark BirminghamReuse content