Sunday, 30 November 2014

Christmas and the Gods

God coming and being involved in creation, with an emptying or divesting of the powers of godhead, and becoming an infant, small and vulnerable is at the heart of the Christmas message.

But the communion of gods and humans is not unknown in the Pagan world. Notoriously, of course, there is the story of Zeus and Leda, described in Apollodorus:

"Zeus in the form of a swan consorted with Leda, and on the same night Tyndareus cohabited with her; and she bore Pollux and Helen to Zeus, and Castor and Clytaemnestra to Tyndareus."

The meaning of the word "consorted" varies but the Greek carries overtones of seduction or rape. We are with the gods as described by the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes, who critiqued these antics of the gods:

"Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things which are matters of reproach and censure among men: theft, adultery and mutual deceit."

Xenophanes went on to criticise how human beings created gods in their own image:

But mortals suppose that gods are born,
wear their own clothes and have a voice and body. (frag. 14)

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black;
Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired. (frag. 16)

But if horses or oxen or lions had hands
or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men,
horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen,
and they would make the bodies
of the sort which each of them had. (frag. 15)

Xenophanes himself was not a monotheist, but tended towards monotheism:

One god is greatest among gods and men,
Not at all like mortals in body or in thought. (frag. 23)

This concept formed a foundation within Platonism and Neo-Platonism, where God was defined in terms far removed from the domain of human beings. This was a great god, a being above all beings, beyond the vices of mere mortals, a being apart, unchangeable, impassable,  not like "mortals in body or in thought".

Judaism approached the matter differently. Humans were made in the "image of God", they may not have possessed attributes of divinity, but they reflected that image, however disfigured and scarred it might seem.  And their God was very different. Sometimes the texts present a God of blood, a God who orders slaughter, but there are later texts which tell the Israelites that God is not on their side, he is a God of justice and mercy, and if their society becomes corrupt, he will destroy it.

The experience of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem and the exile led to a divergence between those who wanted to return to a mythical purity of the past, and those who saw God suffering with his people, and called for an end to empty sacrifices, and spoke of the suffering servant, where God was deeply involved with his creation and his people, not as a distant ruler, but as one who suffered and wept alongside them.

This is very different from the Greek perceptions of deity, of gods and goddesses in the splendour of Mount Olympus, or the philosopher's God, remote and abstract. And that background, within Judaism, is where the Christmas story comes in.

That is why I think the story resonates with us today. And it is all about story, and the power of story to present images of deity and infancy which are so powerful that they still find their way into nativity plays today.

It would perhaps be disingenuous to say that whether or not it happened doesn't matter. Christians believe very much that it was something happening in history as well as story, but the power of the narrative comes from story, and not theology. It is not creed but narrative, a story of God becoming an outcast from himself, living among those outcast at the edge of society.

We are, after all, story telling creatures, and it is stories that we need to draw on for strength, inspiration, understandings of the world. Where our focus becomes too narrow, and we lose sight of story, we may be very successful - as in business - but we lost something of what it is to be human.

Children instinctively respond to stories, and unless we become deadened by the everyday, the Christmas story still elicits a response in us. It is an ancient story enacted and retold with a wide appeal that speaks to the inner child, and can reawaken, for Christmas at least, that sense of wonder and mystery.

That is part of the lesson of Scrooge. As an anonymous quote puts it -" the successful man is the average man, focussed", and Scrooge was an average man, supremely focussed on his business, and very successful as a result, but forgetting that, as Marley reminded him, mankind should have been his business.

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