Hope, myth and a small god

By Jill Segger
December 23, 2016

Early this month, I heard one woman say to another at a supermarket checkout “It doesn't feel Christmassy yet”. I resisted the temptation to say that was because it was barely Advent, but I have been wondering since what 'Christmassy' might mean in 2016.

As the least attractive manifestations of this season intensify in sparkles, twinkles, John Lewis ads and Away in a Manger playing on a supermarket loop, it seems that a soft-focus sentimentality has become the 'Christmassy' defence against the grim realities of a world which appears to be spinning ever faster into division, conflict, cruelty and untruth.

Christmas has shown itself adaptable over the centuries, from the fourth century adoption of a pagan festival to underpin the narrative of Nativity, through the Victorian modulations of Prince Albert and Charles Dickens, to our present day festival of stressed-out consumerism and yearning sentimentality.

In this tradition, we need to discover – or perhaps rediscover – an understanding for our own time. In losing the concept of myth, we have stranded ourselves between two stools, neither of which can fully bear the weight of our weary limbs. Language evolves and words shift their meaning but as 'myth' becomes synonymous with 'lie', both fundamentalists and cynics are trapped in mutual hostilities and the hungry flock looks up, unfed.

A myth could not be further from a lie. It is a story told about truth. It will have drawn on some elements of historic fact but clothes these in the imaginative and symbolic to give them a poetic trajectory into our hearts. It is timeless and can be transformative if we will only hear and reflect.

The Christmas myth has a powerful contemporary resonance. A couple make an arduous journey to meet the administrative requirements of an occupying power. The woman is pregnant and near her time. There are questions about the paternity of the child but there is also gentle forbearance and care on the part of her husband. They cannot find lodgings and the child is born in a farm shed among dung and straw. A grim experience for them all.

Power is not yet done with this family. The 'star-led wizards' with their curious, unwanted gifts must have been disturbing. More cumber to pack up and carry when all they really need is enough money to find somewhere safe and clean to stay. The puppet-ruler of their colonial masters expected something back from these strange visitors and when he did not get it, became murderous and vengeful on a horrifying scale.

The couple and their new-born child are now refugees, pawns in a hideous power-game. Horrifying rumours of massacre may have reached them as they trekked over 200 miles to take refuge in another country. The very familiarity of the story may cause it to lose impact for us if we respond only to the Christmas card iconography or turn away from the scriptural literalism which insists on an un-nuanced reading.

The true myth is concealed from us by the impossibility of many of the story's appurtenances which some insist we must take literally. The impoverishment is profound and leads us to look for hope in the wrong places. Poverty,vulnerability and violent death are the set in which the circle of eternity and love played out its relationship with the circle of mutability and hatred. “ O weary, weary is the world” wrote Chesterton, “but here the world's desire.”

A poem by Heather Trickey in this week's issue of the Friend catches this for me. It begins “Deck the universal mess in brittle tinsel” and closes “quick now [one small god appears].”

May your small god be with you over these strange days.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Keywords:christmas | hope | myth
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