By George Elder, 12/25/23
Christmas, of course, is the “Mass of Christ” that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the divine Savior in the Christian religion. We all know the story as found in the Gospel of Luke, written in Greek around 80 CE (or, until recently, AD, “in the year of the Lord”):
Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census—the first—took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and travelled up to Judaea, to the town of David called Bethlehem, since he was of David’s House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around. They were terrified, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Jerusalem Bible, Luke 2:1-11)
Joyous news, indeed! For the “angel of the Lord” is announcing (the verb is a form of euaggelion, often rendered as “good news,” and from which is derived the English word “evangelical”) that the long-awaited Messiah (“anointed;” Gk christos) had arrived—to free the Jews of Palestine from an onerous Roman occupation. The angel might even be proclaiming the End of time itself and the restoration of Paradise for the “whole people”
Luke is famous for trying to be “historical” with names and places, to make it clear that these are saving facts and not speculation. But there are problems. For one thing, the Roman emperor did not order a census at that time and would not have done so in Herod’s region; for another, a census anticipating taxation would not require returning to the place of one’s birth but remaining where one worked. Nor would a wife be required to accompany her husband, especially if she were pregnant. (Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah)
But then Joseph and Mary are not married. She is merely “betrothed” yet “with child.” By whom? Joseph says earlier in Luke’s account that, disturbingly, it was not by himself. Detractors of the early “Christians” said the father was a soldier named Panthera (a Roman? by force?) and that Jesus was illegitimate, his mother a fallen woman if not, in fact, a prostitute.
Indeed, Jesus of scripture exhibits the psychology of an “illegitimate” child—a loose, even antagonistic, relationship toward family (“Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”), not fitting in, seeing things differently, and needing an archetypal “Father” to resolve the question of paternity (“and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son.’”)
Luke solves this question with the story of a young virgin woman who is visited by the “Holy Spirit”—thus, it is God who makes Mary pregnant, miraculously. (See my book, The Self and the Lotus, for a discussion of the miraculous conception of the Buddha.)
Jung solves the problem this way:
Thus some people believe it to be physically true that Christ was born as the son of a virgin, while others deny this as a physical impossibility. Everyone can see that there is no logical solution to this conflict and that one would do better not to get involved in such sterile disputes. Both are right and both are wrong. Yet they could easily reach agreement if only they dropped the word “physical.” “Physical” is not the only criterion of truth: there are also psychic truths which can neither be explained nor proved nor contested in any physical way. (CW 11, par. 553)
In other words, scriptures of all the world’s religions are not primarily about the physical world nor about history—but about the psyche.
Yes, we are celebrating today the birth of a religious genius named Jesus, but primarily we are celebrating the psychological truths embedded in the imagery surrounding him. That imagery was projected onto the man Jesus from the collective unconscious of his people and eventually the “whole people” of the world. For what was being “born” at that time was a new God-image that would transform culture. It appeared as a “Divine Child,” promising a fresh start, a positive attitude toward life, even a new world view.
The Messiah was supposed to do that, and we can forgive Luke for adjusting his history to let Jesus be born in Bethlehem as prophesied. But this Messiah was entirely unexpected—conceived under questionable circumstances, laid in a feed trough for animals, worshipped first by humble shepherds (and only later by wise men from the East, according to Matthew). This Anointed One would preach: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth;” “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy;” “If you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours.” True, he preached other things; but a new set of values was coming into existence.
While the whole Jewish nation was expecting an imperialistically minded and politically active hero as a Messiah, Jesus fulfilled the Messianic mission not so much for his own nation as for the whole Roman world, and pointed out to humanity the old truth that where force rules there is no love, and where love reigns force does not count. The religion of love was the exact psychological counterpart to the Roman devil-worship of power. (CW 17, par. 309)
That religion—with its myths, rituals, and symbols—transformed the Mediterranean world, then Europe, miraculously. It did so imperfectly, as we know, but our keen awareness of its failures should not blind us to its successes.
The early Church was not actually interested in the birth of Jesus. As Paul’s letters show (50 CE), the focus was on the meaning of his crucifixion and resurrection. The earliest gospel of Mark (60 CE) opens with the baptism of Jesus at age thirty, when he heard that Voice. John’s gospel (100 CE) opens at the Creation of the world, “In the beginning . . . .” Only Luke and Matthew contain “Birth” stories.
By the fourth century, however, the Church really did have to decide on a date for this extraordinary event. They chose December 25th. That was hard to reconcile with the story of shepherds who would not be in the fields at night in winter. But this was the date already celebrated in the Roman religion as the rebirth of “Sol Invictus”—the invincible divine Sun. In the calendar at that time, it was the winter solstice, when the days of the year begin to get longer, warmer, and closer to spring.
But wasn’t Jesus Christ the true “Light of the world”? Ignatius wrote of the new-born star—Jesus’ star—that guided the wise men to Bethlehem: “And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star. It far exceeded them all in brightness.” (Edward Edinger, The Christian Archetype, 36).
We can understand this development as Christianity’s conquering a pagan Sun religion or, better, as Christianity’s assimilating compatible imagery found elsewhere. In fact, by the Middle Ages, the “Mass of Christ” had assimilated the Roman winter Saturnalia of feasts and revelry, the giving of gifts, the softening of all social barriers, even gender barriers as men and women wore each other’s clothes—to celebrate the birth of a Child of Light.
Psychologically, that means that there is an archetype of Light within the unconscious that is urging us to develop more “light” ourselves—to become more conscious. Consciousness sees distinctions required for functioning as human beings, but exceptional consciousness sees through the pretense of hard distinctions that stifle vitality.
As Christianity began to wane, by the sixteenth century, with the dismantling of the sacraments (the Reformation) and the revaluing of classical culture (the Renaissance), Christmas was ready for a pagan sacred Tree—the Christmas conifer. It appeared first in Germany and was probably the Teutonic psyche’s delayed response to St. Boniface who had chopped down their holy oak centuries earlier.
And now beside the Child and the Sun we find the Tree—covered with lights, of course, and like an Ignatian “chorus” surrounding a star at the top.
In an interview, Jung said he was struck by the fact that millions of people bring an evergreen tree into their homes every year without really knowing why. He called it an “unthinking ritual act”—that expresses, nevertheless, an important truth: the “participation mystique between man and the tree: both share the same fate.” (McGuire and Hull, C. G. Jung Speaking, 356)
He meant that like a tree, we have within ourselves a natural force for growth—not just biologically but psychologically. We are meant to “grow” (like a fir) from being spread out in the world (at the bottom) to being more focused within ourselves (at the top). The Christmas tree, then, is a “projected representation of the process of individuation.”
Granted, profound truths seem to have been swept aside by the American addition of Santa Claus and his reindeer and the crafting of toys at the North Pole. But it’s for children—and we see the archetype of the Divine Child shining through the secular myth. The commercialization of Christmas is enthusiastic, at least, expressing the joy in life that even a fading God-image provides. All those gifts going back and forth, all those Christmas cards wishing everyone health and happiness throughout the year are acts of love. They anticipate a new vital God-image for our own culture—that will necessarily be rooted in the “religion of love.”