metaphors of Christmas
Putting Christ back into Christmas still gets the lions
share of attention from those concerned about the religious
diminution of the feast. Its the standard difficulty
stressed regarding Christ and Christmas.
The cultural challenge has made more people perhaps pay more
attention to the religious meaning of the feast, but a more
subtle difficulty tends to go unnoticed. It arises not so
much from culture as from the Christmas story itself; more
accurately, from a combination of both.
Many find it hard to believe that the infancy narratives,
as they are called, depict events that were actually historical.
With traditional presumptions suspended or gone, all they
seem left with is Christmas sentiment without Christmas. For
a few fleeting moments, on Christmas Eve, perhaps, doubt gets
trumped by O Holy Night. The story seems real
again then, temporarily.
Like the Genesis stories of creation, the infancy narratives
have been a source of conflict among Christians. Some insist
that they must be seen as factually true, that wise men were
really led by a special star to Bethlehem, and angels really
sang to shepherds in the night sky.
Factuality is often made a test of orthodoxy.
Others see the narratives as metaphor, not historical reports,
mainly because they sense the deeply symbolic elements and
motifs in them.
I remember a time, here in Trinidad, among Catholics, when
to refer to Genesis in any manner other than historical was
a sure way to be labelled a heretic.
Interpretation today as mythical narrative (where myth,
as Thomas Mann once said, means a story about the way
things never were, but always are) hardly raises an
I suspect the same is or will be true of the infancy narratives,
and basically for similar reason. There is greater openness
to the implications of metaphor in biblical interpretation.
Theres obvious benefit in including the standpoint of
metaphor, in looking at biblical material. So much of the
Bible is metaphorical. It speaks, for instance, of God having
hands and feet, eyes and ears, whereas God obviously has no
such features. It speaks also of Jesus sitting at Gods
right hand, whereas there is no seat near to God
where anyone can sit.
Sometimes the Bible uses actual history as metaphor. For example,
the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC really happened,
but the way the history is later recalled in the Old Testament
invests the telling with metaphorical meaning. It becomes
a narrative of exile and return, one of the more important
biblical images of the human condition (alienation) and its
At other times, theres little history behind the stories.
The stories in Genesis, as I have impliedcreation, the
Garden of Eden, the expulsion of Adam and Eve, Cains
murder of Abel, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babelare
all mythical or metaphorical narratives. They are not reporting
the early history of humanity. Yet, as metaphorical narratives,
they convey profound though, not factual truth.
Western culture is practically tone deaf to metaphor. Its
part of what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams,
calls our linguistic bereavement after the Enlightenment.
We prefer factual reporting. A standard question to any of
the narratives in the preceding paragraph is: Is it
true? Which means did it happen? If didnt
actually happen, its truth value is nil.
Metaphor, in a modest definition, is a figure of speech in
which we speak of one thing in terms suggestive of another.
Its naturally at home in religion, because while we
speak about supernatural things, we have no supernatural language.
All we do is suggest.
Its the reason why mystics in all religions have spoken
differently from theologians. Its the reason why St
John of the Cross, for example, chose nada/nothing
as his favourite word for the divine.
What does a metaphorical reading of the Christmas story yield?
The special star and the glory of the Lord filling the night
sky suggest that this is the story of light in our darkness,
that, in the language of the gospel of John, Jesus is the
light of the world, the true light that
enlightens every person.
The story of non-Jewish kings, or wise men from the
East, coming to Bethlehem affirms that Jesus is meant
not only for Israel but for all nations and cultures. On the
day of the Epiphany he is made manifest or disclosed
The story of the shepherds as the first to be told of the
birth, affirms that the good news of the gospel is especially
good news for the poor and the marginalised.
The song of the angels declares that Jesus is Lord and Saviourand
thus Caesar, who uses these titles for himself, is not.
The story of King Herod ordering the slaughter of male babies
echoes the story of Pharaoh issuing a similar order in the
time of Moses.
It suggests that Jesus is a new Moses, that a new exodus is
about to happen, and that the Pharaohs and Herods of this
world always try to destroy the bearer of Gods liberating
word, but their efforts are in vain.
Read metaphorically, the story means all of this, and a great
deal more. A factual interpretation can distract from it all.
When factuality is emphasised, the miraculous elements inevitably
become objects of contention.
The issue becomes a matter of settling whether any of the
events actually occurred. An endless, sterile debate ensues
between those who think they did and those who think they
The rich, metaphorical meanings, which move beyond the inadequacies
of rational discourse, end up by the wayside.
Christmas need not be an experience of existential juggling
between faith and nostalgia, or faith and fiction.
One can enter into the story as fully as one always did. Its
a matter of approach and interpretation.
If you think you see it now correctly as only poetic fiction,
its real meaning will escape you. If you come at it with an
eye and ear alert to the suggestions and resonances of metaphor,
you may find in it more to appreciate than you ever did.