People dressed as elves answer letters for Santa Claus at the Libourne's post office, southwestern France, on December 10, 2020. A special unit of La Poste, which opened in 1962, employs each year around 60 people to answer letters by children from 140 countries. (Thibaud Moritz / AFP)
Did Pope Benedict XVI start it all by saying that "the ox and the ass" around the manger are "just myths" in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth? It seems he did. And didn't he also say the angels never sang to the shepherds on the hillside?Perhaps he did – I haven't read his book yet – but Scripture scholars have been saying this for years. Not just that: there weren't "three kings" and a "star in the East," either. Not even a meeting with King Herod or a slaughter of the Innocents.What next? With all these 'changes', are we sure whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Probably not. As to being born on December 25, certainly not!So what do we believe in the Christmas stories? And how do we believe? What is real? What is the truth? Perhaps the discussion should start here.All of us today are children of a scientific age, and for us, truth is what we can see (and hear and touch) and what we can measure. We call this 'empirical' truth, that is, facts that can be measured, tested, and verified according to generally accepted criteria. And whenever we read or write a report, we expect that these canons of evidence are followed. But the Bible was written in a pre-scientific age, and to apply such modern criteria to it lands us in problems.Salvation history is what goes on within us -- while outwardly we grow, develop, age, and die. Our public image may be one of success or failure, triumph, or disaster. But it is within the "heart of man," unseen and unnoticed, that the real struggle goes on. It is here that we encounter 'the truth' of our lives. God's word is addressed to this heart. The Bible speaks to our heart, not to our face. And its words are metaphorical, not mathematical.Myth and symbol don't just record the event; they probe the meaning of the event. When we say "we believe," we give meaning to what we say, for faith gives meaning. All mythology dips into our reserves of faith. Myth, story-telling, ritual, and drama are ways in which we understand the reality of our lives -- or the lives of our heroes or our demons. Today' myth' is a bad word. It has come to mean falsehood. But this is incorrect. Myth is just another way of speaking, as true as science and logic, but different. Today again, we say something is "symbolic," meaning that it's not the real thing. Again, how wrong! Rather, a symbol is a truth so close to the bone that it can't be expressed in ordinary words but needs a more imaginative rendering.But let's get back to the Christmas stories. If they are symbolic, then what is their deeper meaning?
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