Before the earth was known to be a revolving sphere, Christians and pagans alike wondered in awe over the sun’s daily course—disappearing in the west every evening, following some mysterious path below earth during the night, then reappearing in the east every morning. It inspired myth-making. The Goddess enveloped the sun in her body every evening and sent it forth in the morning. The Greek sun god Helios traversed the heavens from east to west in a shiny chariot, descended to the nether regions, and according to the poet Horace was "born anew every morning." Literature devoted to Helios shines with religious fervor and high artistry:
Helios, eye of the world! Joy of the daytime! Loveliness of heaven! Darling of nature! Jewel of creation...Mystical, emotional ecstasy flows out of this sun-god literature. The last is from a Greek litany, but the same or similar phrases have been used in Christian litanies.
Glory of earth and sky, the sun is the same for all,
Glory of light and darkness, the sun is beginning and end...
Helios, ruler of the world, spirit of the world, power of the world, light of the world.
Surrounded by and steeped in Greek myth, Christians of the early centuries imagined Christ journeying the nether regions and rising in the east. “He descended to the dead,” declares the Apostles’ Creed. Christ became the true sun, the light coming into the darkness, the "Sun of Righteousness," the "Dayspring from on high."
Like pagan literature, our scriptures are dotted with light imagery. Luke l:78 speaks of "the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us." John 1:9 names Jesus "the real light which gives light to everyone." John 8:12 has Jesus saying, "I am the light of the world." In the gnostic Acts of Thomas Jesus appears after his baptism like a youth with a torch, the image of Helios in Greco-Roman art. The Nicene Creed continues the imagery—“God from God, light from light."
My atheist friends may consider this proof that Christianity serves up hogwash. Not at all! They’re right about one thing—we should not believe religious stories literally. But how many adults actually believe that three kings on camels followed a star from afar and arrived at a manger (feeding trough) the night Jesus was born? If you think it’s in the Bible, check again.
So why do we sing Christmas carols and love them so? What’s the attraction?
Religious images of all kinds link us with Transcendence, with the invisible realm, the realm of meaning. It speaks in symbols that can guide our lives in the outer world. Helios no longer adorns the heavens and neither does Jesus, but the psychic energy of Christ continues to resonate in American hearts, especially at Christmas when Nature’s cold and darkness direct us inward to mystery.
The nativity story’s meaning varies for each of us and may be related to birth and childhood, and it’s always difficult to express. On the surface, the primary function of Christmas for Americans today is buying and selling, but that doesn’t explain the warm feelings, the generosity, the return to religious stories we know are fictional. Unlocking the reasons for the lure of religious symbols can engage us for a lifetime.
I’m not telling those who are disgusted by literal belief and religious fanaticism to join a religion—their disgust is appropriate. I’m saying that, as humans, they must not shirk the main task of all humans—to grow in wisdom, to search for the psycho-spiritual energies that drive human emotions, to “KNOW THYSELF.” (Whence come these pleasant feelings? These embarrassing feelings? Why did I wake up sweating? What am I called to do?)
Religion helps some people to turn inward and find answers, but not the corrupted and deluded forms of popular religion—fundamentalism and dogmatism.
I invite readers to find their own interpretation of Christmas, with or without religion, but humbly accepting help from a Power greater than us can bring swift, sometimes effortless, help. I quote Jungian analyst James Hollis:
If truth be told, we wish we didn’t have to grow, but life is asking more of us than that.This More is my Christmas wish for readers.
POSTSCRIPT (December 28).
I cherish this response to “Jesus, a sun god” from a Catholic priest:
Thanks for keeping me on your list...I enjoy your posts and am grateful for people like you!I enjoyed this post from fellow Christian Scott Thompson:
Good job.Kathleen Herrick wrote:
Wonderfully illuminating, Jeanette. Bravo!Many clerics I know ARE aware of the historical context but, unfortunately, they’re not the ones educating seminarians and other priests. And Catholic intellectuals have plenty to do just dealing with right-wing pressure from our culture and from the Vatican. The crop of priests exiting our seminaries today tells me they have not been educated about Christianity’s pagan roots or even historical-critical scripture study, because they’re preaching literalist nonsense. These seminaries exist because John Paul appointed conservative bishops who themselves are unaware of their religion’s early history and do their best to keep priests penned in the traditional Church enclosure.
One wonders if any Roman Catholic prelate has ever read anything at all about the historical context of early Christianity. The maddening ignorance one hears from parish pulpits speaks to the anti-intellectualism which must pervade seminaries.
Catholics who leave the Church because they chafe under its dumb moral rules often land in an even more ignorant form of Christianity—evangelicalism. The ones who leave Christianity altogether are the most educated, but then they’re not around to reform the Church.
I think the biggest reasons we don’t see change are inertia and nostalgia. I feel it myself at Christmas time because I love traditional hymns and sing them with the offensive language.
Here’s an illuminating and hopeful fact to consider: It took Christianity centuries to penetrate into the hinterlands of the Roman Empire. We can expect that the new paradigm, post-Christian spirituality—whatever its form—will take many years to penetrate our culture. I’m encouraged by the signs we can see already.