Dec. 23 2015 09:26 AM

A powerful retelling of the miracle birth myth

Another Christmas and another controversy at the Capitol about a nativity scene and religious free speech.

As a journalist, the First Amendment is my favorite ... freedom of the press and all that it entails. Equally important is the prohibition against government meddling in religious matters. I don't think the Ten Commandments belongs in courtrooms. Kids should pray at home and if they want to do it at school, do it privately.But I don't really mind nativity scenes on the Capitol grounds, a controversy that recycles each year as regularly as Santa in shopping malls.

Last weekend Grand Ledge Sen. Rick Jones, a handful of legislators and others again assembled a small nativity scene on the Capitol lawn. As these displays go, it's really disappointing — no angels or shepherds. No sheep or donkey's gazing at the cradle. Maybe the Wise Men will show later, but I doubt it.

There were counter displays featured on the lawn. Returning again this year is the Snaketivity display with pagan symbols and the phrase “The Greatest Gift is Knowledge,” which doesn't seem very Satanic. Then there is the ridiculous “parody” titled the Flying Spaghetti Monster, essentially mops on a stick. Sophomoric is too generous a description. Earlier in the season U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz sponsored a live nativity, an obvious stunt to promote his presidential primary campaign.

Since displays on the Capitol grounds are open to all and strictly regulated — they must be assembled and disassembled each day — a nativity scene at Christmas time is no better or worse than any other display.

In fact, if done right, it is more compelling. Maybe I'm just channeling my youth. Viewing the nativity scenes at churches during the Christmas season was something we did as a family. There were large outdoor displays, elaborately assembled by the men of the parish. Inside the churches were more elaborate manger scenes, smaller brightly colored figures and more of them.

It was mesmerizing and reinforced by the Gospels. The retelling of the Christmas story from Luke was the most detailed, most aligned with the displays by the altar. We'd get another reading of Luke at home as we venerated the nativity scene assembled on top of the television set.

Christ's birth story is much more succinct in Matthew (it isn't mentioned in Mark or John).

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel. When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”

Really not much of a tale, until I was older and began to grapple with the spiritual and biological meaning of virgin birth. It is central to Christian beliefs and woven into the narrative of other ancient religions.

There is, as you would expect, much angst about the relationships between the Christmas miracle birth and those mythical figures like Horus, Mithra, or Krishna. Theological squabbling aside, it is safe to say that the motif didn't originate in the Bible. About.com (a neutral source) in its religion site describes Buddha origins this way:

“ … Queen Maya retired to her quarters to rest, and she fell asleep and dreamed a vivid dream. Four angels carried her high into white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk approached Maya and walked around her three times. Then the elephant struck her on the right side with its trunk and vanished into her.

“ … The King summoned 64 Brahmans to come and interpret it. Queen Maya would give birth to a son … .

Author Acharya S, the pen name for Dorothy M. Murdock, has written extensively about the mythical origins of Christianity. This, of course, is raw meat for passionate arguments about the ancient definitions of “virgin birth” and their authenticity, all of which ultimately relies on the faith of the believer.

“In reality,” Acharya writes, “the virginmother motif is common enough in pre-Christian cultures to demonstrate its unoriginality in Christianity.” And she cites a long list of virgin mothers. In Greek mythology there is Dannae, impregnated by Zeus, who gave birth to Dionysus. In Hinduism, Devaki, wife of the god Vishnu, was mother of Krishna. The Teutonic goddess Hertha was impregnated by the heavenly spirit. Quetzalcoatl, the (crucified) savior of the Aztecs, was the son of Chimalman, the Virgin Queen of Heaven.

These are stories with more similarities than differences. None diminish the Christian nativity story, its power or its mystery.

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