A reader writes in:
I have always loved the Christmas story, it holds a kind of magic as good and better than anything J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could create, because it could be true! I have recently read that it is unlikely Jesus was born in Bethlehem there wasn't a census around that time and if there was, there would be no reason for Mary and Joseph to travel anywhere. Does this mean that Christmas is just a story? The nativity has always been central to my Christmas celebrations.
I hope you can help me feel less like something precious has been taken from me.
It can be daunting as people trained in rationalism for us to see truth in non-historical forms. The solution to your dilemma is through the authors you mention in your question. Here I will re-post an article from 2005, The Feast of CS Lewis.
Today is the feast day of CS Lewis. It was added at the last General Convention (one of the many things that no one seemed to notice.) After preaching the mid-day service, my December newsletter article seemed to write itself....
I’m looking forward to the release of the movie of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe early next month. The first time I read the Narnia series, I was around 12 or 13. I had finished The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was a bit daunting for a new reader of Fantasy. At the time, I believed that God existed, but I was doubtful that he had any role in the universe beyond creation. I was technically a Deist in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, although I didn’t know it at the time. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Last Battle had a great effect on me. I understood the allegory, but I didn’t recognize it as Christian. I remember thinking to myself, “I love how Lewis portrays God – I only wish Christianity believed that.” My experience with the Christianity of Fundamentalism had led me to believe that the God Christians worshipped was a God primarily of judgment and anger. In Aslan, I met a figure of God that while great and terrible, was primarily tender and loving. Lewis’ writings planted a seed in me – a seed that began to be tended and watered by liturgy, word and sacrament when my family moved to the Episcopal Church. The Stories of Narnia, while not scripture, contained the Gospel message in such a way that I could hear them. When I finally came into contact with scripture on my own terms, I saw that all the Narnia stories (and the Middle-Earth stories as well) pointed towards this ultimate story. Fantasy literature had been my entry into the Christian life.
In our culture, we are bereft of story. The enlightenment, while providing us with many benefits that I would never speak ill of, has left us with a lesser view of the power of fiction. We now say that something is “Only a story,” inferring that since it does not bear up a strict factual truthfulness, that it must have less value. Some have even applied this to scripture, asserting that if the Bible is not historically or factually true on all counts, that it cannot be the Word of God. I find this hard to understand, since the first place I heard the Word spoken was in the pages of a fantasy novel by an Anglican author. If you had placed a Bible in my hands at that time, all I would have been able to hear would be the echoes of the “fire and brimstone” sermons I had heard and rejected. CS Lewis held my hand with the image of Aslan until I was able to look at the Bible in the light of the Gospel message as he re-told it. In my experience, story is much more powerful than fact and quite often bears more truth.
We are heading towards the Christmas season – the ultimate “Fairy Tale” in terms of our Christian year. We know that the date of December 25th was set arbitrarily by a Pope in the 300s to coincide with the Roman pagan feast of Sol Invictus. Biblical Scholars believe that the birth was probably in the spring, not the winter, and the Early Church Fathers back that up. But think of what we would lose if we would change the date: Visions of a pregnant Mary and her husband walking through the cold snow to get to Bethlehem, of shepherds huddling together with their flocks against the bitter wind, of magi plodding their camels through the wintry roads of Judea following a star in the clear night sky. We would lose “Silent Night” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” We’d even have to get rid of “The Christmas Song” whether you prefer Sinatra, Crosby or Cole.
The setting of Christmas in midwinter, when we are so aware of how fragile life is, when cold kills and famine threatens, tells us something about the Incarnation. It speaks of the frightening vulnerability of the Child Jesus and the wonder that God would love us so much to bring himself to a manger. Even though it may be factually incorrect, the story is so much more powerful when set in the Winter that it is “truer” than one set in the Spring. Yes, the wintry setting of the Birth of Jesus IS a “Fairy Tale.” In fact, the Gospels can be seen as a whole to be a fairy tale or a tale that embraces the essence of fairy tales. But, as Tolkien wrote, “This story has entered History … The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe (joyous unexpected event) of Man’s history. … There is no story ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. … This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have been fused. “(Tree and Leaf, 1964)
Christmas is not something to be picked apart and analyzed. It is something to be experienced. It is a story to be heard to and to be made a part of us. Make time this Christmas to encounter the truth of story, and expect to be changed by it.