THE NATIVITY STORY AN INTERPRETATION by Ian Ellis-JonesAN ADDRESS DELIVERED BEFORE THE SYDNEY UNITARIAN CHURCH SUNDAY, 18 DECEMBER 2005 THE ETERNAL BETHLEHEM Two thousand years since Bethlehem! O measure not that Birth by time Alone! Each soul potentially A hidden Bethlehem-to-be. Two thousand years since Bethlehem! Yet angels garnering earth’s good will Proclaim the Star shines now as then To guide new Shepherds, new Wise Men. Two thousand years since Bethlehem! Man spirals towards its lucent fields: Now fails, now falls – but, climbing still, Finds Christ new-born on Bethlehem’s hill. - Phyllis V Campbell Within the heart of every person The Christ Child will be born again – Not as a child in swaddling clothes But as a light that grows and grows Until the universe will ring With peace on earth … and angels sing As each person turns to face the light. The star of Bethlehem did shine and Children sang “Star light, star bright,” But know this, brothers and sisters of the light: Your radiance from the light within Will far outshine a brilliant star. You are a light, a light of truth … Go forth and shed your light afar. - Emily Sanford.
Introduction "And the angel said to them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2: 10, 11). "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Is 9: 6). " ...a little child shall lead them" (Is 11: 6).The Christian Nativity Story is, first and foremost, the account of the birth ofJesus of Nazareth. The story itself may be regarded as being historical, atleast in small part, although clearly much of the language of the Gospelaccounts of the event is "mythical" and symbolic. To refer to the story asmythical is not to deny its historicity or authenticity. A great deal of myth isbased on historical events, even if not all such events acquire the mythiccharacter. It is simply to state that there is a level on which the story mayproperly be regarded and interpreted as a pattern of images with spiritualmeaning. This is the case with all sacred scripture. Much of it is written inallegorical and spiritual language, and it is remarkable the extent to which thislanguage is common to all the different sacred scriptures of the world’sreligions.When properly understood, the Nativity Story is both an account of the birth ofJesus as well as a symbolic representation of the "new birth", the birth of the“Christ Child” within our hearts. I use that expression, not in any narrowevangelical sense, but in a fairly broad psychological sense. There is a partof us that is our genuine authentic self, our real self, our I Am-ness. Carl Jungcalled it the "Divine Child". Emmet Fox called it the "Wonder Child", theindwelling Presence of God within each of us. Charles Whitfield called it theChild Within. Some psychotherapists refer to it as the Real Self or True Self.Theosophists refer to it as the Reincarnating Ego. Esoterically speaking, the“new birth”, or birth of the Christ Child within us, refers to the awakening within
us of the conscious but choiceless awareness of the indwelling presence ofLife, Truth and Love occasioned by a profound sense of the numinous. The“new birth” experience has been well described by Felix Adler, the founder ofEthical Culture, in terms that make sense for Unitarians and others who wishto understand that experience without the unwanted baggage ofsupernaturalism: The experience to which I refer is essentially moral experience. It may be described as a sense of subjection to imperious impulses which urge our finite nature toward infinite issues; a sense of propulsions which we can resist, but not disown; a sense of a power greater than ourselves, with which, nevertheless, in essence we are one; a sense, in times of moral stress, of channels opened by persistent effort, which let in a flood of rejuvenating energy and puts us in command of unsuspected moral resources; a sense, finally, of the complicity of our life with the life of others, of living in them in no merely metaphorical signification of the word; of unity with all spiritual being whatsoever.1Christian mystic Angelus Silesius has written these powerfully confrontinglines: Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, But not within thyself, thy soul will be forlorn, The Cross on Golgotha thou lookest to in vain Unless within thyself it be set up againI propose to review the Christmas Story by focusing on its key elements andcharacters so as to draw out the spiritual significance of the event which wasto change the entire world. Journey with me below the surface of the text tothe underlying metaphysical meaning. The Apostle Paul writes, "We impart asecret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for ourglorification" (1 Cor 2: 7). So, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing thathas happened, that the Lord has told us” (Lk 2:15).1 Felix Adler, Life and Destiny (London: Watts & Co, 1913), pp 22-3.
Gabriel "And the angel said to her, Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and his name Jesus" (Lk 1: 30, 31).The Annunciation is a dramatic revelation of a fundamental spiritual lawwhich, traditionally expressed, says, “God seeks, the soul responds”. Now,God can be seen as Life, Truth and Love. Not just Life, but the verylivingness of Life, the oneness of all Life, and the givingness of Life to Itself.Life is there in all its fulness. There is nothing else. Life cannot otherwise be.It is our response to Life that makes the difference to our existence.Luke records how “the angel Gabriel was sent from God" (Lk 1: 26) to theVirgin Mary to announce the imminent virgin birth. In spiritual language, anangel is a projection into human consciousness of an exalted spiritual ideadirect from the fountainhead of God. The exalted idea is sown in the mindand the seed quickens into the cell. The coming into activity of the ChristChild within us is the result of an exalted idea sown in the mind by the Spirit ofGod - the realisation that the human soul is to be the bearer of the Divine.When we have an exalted idea, the angel Gabriel comes into ourconsciousness, metaphorically speaking. If we say yes to Gabriel – that is, ifwe really want change in our life at a very deep level - then somethingwonderful happens. Something is born in our souls that stays with us for therest of our lives.MaryIf some have accorded to the Virgin Mary more honours than are properlyhers, it can equally be said that there are others who, anxious to avoid thesame mistake, have failed to give her any attention at all. Anyway, scripturetells us that Marys honour is due to the One who is said to have done for her
great things. Her soul ”magnifies the Lord" (Lk 1: 46) and her spirit "rejoicesin God [her] Saviour" (Lk 1: 47).Now, this is very important. Mary signifies the "virgin soul", the soul in lovewith God/Life/Truth, the soul which puts spiritual values and principles firstand which is completely concentrated and focused on those things. In such asoul there is a total orientation of thought and affection towards God/Life/Turthand a radical detachment from all earthly things. There can never beobedience without such a disposition.Let us never forget that the Nativity is a virgin birth. With such a birth,conception is by perception. Catholic archbishop Fulton Sheen writes thatMary had already conceived in her heart that which the Holy Spirit conceivedin her womb. Esoterically, the Christ Child waits not on nature but on theVirgins acceptance of the Divine Will. We are told that Christ is born anewwithin us by virtue of Gods initiative, not our achievements. What this meansis that we are changed, not so much by what we do, but by our willingness tobe changed, our willingness to surrender, give up, let go. In order to changespiritually, and grow spiritually, we must be prepared to give up everything inour lives that holds us back and keeps us in bondage to our lower selves.The Roman Catholic Church teaches the Perpetual Virginity and theImmaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. There is no need to affirm eitherof these dogmas in a literal sense, but allegorically they reinforce the notion ofMary as a symbol of the "virgin soul". The first dogma - Marys continuedvirginity - speaks of a lifelong commitment to and communion with God and,as such, symbolizes the spiritual life. The second dogma - Marys immaculateconception - attests to the divine essence of the human soul, the sacrednessof human life, as well as speaking of purity and innocence. Being filled withthe Spirit of God, the virgin soul can contain nothing else. Nothing that isimpure, nothing that is not God, can linger in it for an instant.The Virgin Mary, in short, symbolises all those qualities that are essential
prerequisites to new spiritual birth - willing obedience, openness toLife/Truth/Love, and humility. She represents a pure state of mind thatponders spiritual things and believes in the so-called miraculous as apossibility: "let it be to me according to your word" (Lk 1: 38). E S Lambwrites: Beyond celebration of gift and carol, candlelighting and “Merry Christmas!” there is another ritual of season when I turn within to the still centre of my own being, celebrating within the shape of silence, the star’s radiance, the birth of love, the peace angel, and let vibrations flow out from that centre’s energy to bless, to heal, to give the gift of radiant love.Joseph “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. …" (Matthew 1: 24).Joseph, no word of whose does the Bible record, is the silent witness to theNativity Story. He is the privileged sharer of the thoughts Mary pondered inher heart, delicate of mind and gentle of heart. Like Mary, he was everobedient to the Will of God, the spiritual impulse - a shining symbol ofbelieving strength.The Journey "And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child" ( Lk 2: 4 , 5 ).It was less than 112 kilometres from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but the road laythrough deep valleys and over mountains. The way was dusty and difficult. Itwas a long, laborious and wearisome journey in order that our Lord may beborn in abject poverty. We, too, are on a journey. We are travelers on theroad of life, and it is said that if we want to travel far, we must travel light.
Norman Vincent Peale wrote that the real purpose of time is for thediscernment of God. Bethlehem means "house of bread"; esoterically,Bethlehem, where Jesus was supposedly born, represents substance and life,that spiritual state of consciousness, deep within our minds, where the ChristChild, metaphorically speaking, is formed - deep in our subconscious, downamong the “animal forces”. The journey to Bethlehem is a spiritual quest forthe "true bread from heaven", or the experience of the new birth.The Donkey "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?" (1 Cor 6: 19).Those childhood pictures of Mary and Joseph and their little donkey areindelibly imprinted on our hearts. In particular, we see Mary seated on thebeast, with Joseph leading it by the halter rope along the road to Bethlehem.Many have seen the donkey as representing our physical bodies. We mustnot forget our physical bodies if we are to bring the Christ Child to fruition inthe place where it is to be born. To ignore or reject our physical side preventsthe birth of real spirituality.The Stable "And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn" (Lk 2: 7).The Christ Child was born in a stable "because there was no place" in the inn.He was born in humble and unworthy surroundings. If Christ can be born insuch a place, then the spiritual experience I’m describing can take place inany person, regardless of their past or present circumstances. WilliamJames, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, has written that almost allconversion experiences, whatever their variety, do have a commondenominator of ego collapse at depth in which a person faces a seemingly
impossible dilemma and lets go … surrenders … to whatever is. Yes, onlyamidst humility and perhaps even brokenness will the “Christ Child” ever beborn in us. He can never be born in the inn - that is, in the heart of the personwho has no room for Christ, who is too busy and too proud to let the ChristChild come to life, who has no time or patience for spiritual ideas and truths.Pride, indifference and selfishness close the door against the new birth.Metaphorically speaking, the Christ Child knocks on every door, yet thosethings fill the inn and bar the way. Only can the humble open their doors tothe Christ Child - those who realise that, without a deep spiritual dimension totheir lives, they are nothing and have nothing. There’s an old Welsh grace,which goes like this: Let not our hearts be busy inns That have no room for Thee, But cradles of the living Christ And His nativity.The stable is symbolic of our present state of consciousness with its feelingsof unworthiness, shame and lack of purpose and direction. It symbolises the“new life” that is born into anyone of us the moment that we give our wholehearts to God as we understand God. That is when the Christ Child is born,when we make up our minds to put God as we understand God first in ourlives and not second. Ask any recovering alcoholic or addict about thisprocess. It is real and vital. Yes, so great is the power of change in our lives,that if we really want change, at a deep level, we can and will have it! By wayof example, in the “Big Book” of the twelve-step fellowship AlcoholicsAnonymous, itself entitled Alcoholics Anonymous,2 Bill Wilson, cofounder ofthe fellowship, describes his “white light” conversion experience: Lying there in conflict, I dropped into the blackest depression I had ever known. Momentarily my prideful depression was crushed. I cried out, "Now I am ready to do anything - anything to receive what my friend Ebby has." Though I certainly didnt expect anything, I did make this frantic2 Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous WorldServices, 1976).
appeal, "If there be a God, will He show Himself!" The result was instant, electric beyond description. The place seemed to light up, blinding white. I knew only ecstasy and seemed on a mountain. A great wind blew, enveloping and penetrating me. To me, it was not of air but of Spirit. Blazing, there came the tremendous thought, "you are a free man." Then the ecstasy subsided. Still on the bed, I now found myself in a new world of consciousness which was suffused by a Presence. One with the Universe, a great peace came over me. I thought, "So this is the God of the preachers, this is the great Reality." But soon my so-called reason returned, my modern education took over and I thought I must be crazy and I became terribly frightened.3Yes, the Christ comes into a stable, not into a palace. The only preconditionis the willingness to have one’s ego deflated with the humble acknowledgmentthat the self that is held in bondage cannot change itself because it has nopower of itself. Only a power-not-oneself can deliver us from the bondage ofself.When the Holy Child is born, he is wrapped in swaddling clothes. The newly-born Babe needs care and nurture but carries its own protection. So we mustattend to our own spiritual development. Spiritual growth involves continuousletting go. David McClure, minister of Windward Unity Church in Kailua,Hawaii, writes: Letting go and letting God is not just an interesting technique that we can try when all else fails. It is a way of life. In fact, it is the only way of life. It is the way we are meant to live our lives. Another way of describing God is as a “stream of living energy and infinite possibilities.” Actually we are in this steam all the time, but often do not know it. Part of rowing our boats “gently down the stream” is becoming conscious and steering our boat out into this living stream. This is a conscious, free-will choice to move our oars in this direction. Sometimes this stream becomes for us a raging torrent of energy that abruptly changes the direction of our lives. But most often, it is a very3 rd Alcoholics Anonymous, 3 ed (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1976), p….
subtle intention that is directing and guiding our lives towards our highest possible good.4In the Old Testament it is written, "Take this child away, and nurse him for me,and I will give you your wages" (Ex 2: 9). Yes, the spiritual life is its ownreward. If we want joy and real happiness in our lives then we mustsurrender, let go, give up. We must make room in our life for this Christ Child.Desire to be relieved of the bondage of self. Give up your self-obsession, andstart to live.The Shepherds "And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Lk 2: 8 ).The Christ Child is born in humility. Who are they who are chosen to know?Shepherds. Persons who live close to the earth and the simple, lovely thingsof earth. Those who are patient, humble, resourceful and above all faithful.The shepherds stood for the men who followed Gods Will, who did what wasrequired of them, spiritually speaking. From among them had come thinkersand prophets to whom rulers listened. Others wishing to be holy went out tolive as they did. "The Lord is my shepherd", wrote the shepherd poet wholater became king. The symbolism of the good shepherd had deep meaningin the Holy Land.The Wise Men "When (the wise men) saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh" (Mt 2: 10, 11).4 David McClure, “The Subtle Stream” [Online]http://windwardunity.blogs.com/windward_unity_breeze/2005/09/sunday_lesson_h_2.html#more [accessed 11/10/2005].
Matthew tells us how Herod instructed the wise men to "search diligently" forthe Child (Mt 2: 8). If we truly wish to have a deep spiritual experience we willdo so. It should, however, be remembered that the wise men were directed tothe place where the Child was by "the star which they had seen in the East"(Mt 2: 9). Exoterically, we are told that we can know God only as Godchooses to reveal Himself to us. Esoterically, we must listen to that “still, smallvoice” within us that says … this is the way!The Star in the East “ ...and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was" (Mt 2: 9) .In metaphysics, the east is where God is. For present purposes, the eastrefers to our inner state of consciousness.Now, wise men knew from their ancient books that God had promised to sendinto the world a great king, who would save his people and rule over them.When suddenly the eastern star appeared, they perceived that the time hadcome.The eastern star is the morning star. It is the first gleam, the first dawning ofthe truth of the new birth. In the Bible, the east always stands for spirit, truthand God. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as thewest, so will be the coming of "the Son of man" (Mt 24: 27).The star shines for all mankind. It shines within each one of us. It is the lightwhich leads us to the greater Light, the true light that enlightens every man"(Jn 1: 9). The star is the outer symbol of the inner light. When we have seenthe star we have not yet found the Christ Child, but we are convinced that heexists, that we want him, and that we are going to find him. We must followthe star constantly, that we may be led to the Christ Childs birthplace - alsowithin ourselves.
The Gifts of the Magi "...opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt 2: 11).When the wise men saw the Child with Mary his mother, they fell down andworshipped him and offered him precious gifts. When the Christ Child is bornin us, when we awaken to a deep sense of our Being-ness, we receive raregifts from God. Gold - the light of truth, the gift of wisdom, the seal of theroyal priesthood. Frankincense - the sweet fragrance of sympathy, sacrifiice,understanding and healing. Myrrh - love to sustain and heal.Body, Soul and Spirit “ ...may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the- coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1Thess 5: 23).In the old tradition and classical pictures of the Nativity Story, there is alwaysa donkey, an ox and a lamb in the stable, near to the Christ Child. It has beensaid that these three animals represent three important aspects of our nature.The donkey represents the human mind unillumined by Christ - theunregenerate soul. The ox represents the physical body. The lamb signifiesour spiritual nature. When the Christ Child is born in us, it is said that thesethree things are united into a new and wondrous creation. We then becomefully functioning human beings.The Eternal Bethlehem: Christmas Forever! “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel" (Lk 2: 34).This is the story of the Christmas Child. How wrong it would be of us to thinkthat the story ended 2,000 years ago. The truth is that the event is going on
all the time, whenever someone awakens to their true potential, to their innerdivinity. Charles Fillmore writes: The bringing forth of the Christ child is not a work that was finished in Bethlehem. It is taking place in our midst every day. It is this we 5 celebrate.No sooner is Christmas upon us, it’s over, but the good news is that the newbirth can occur at any time. Indeed, those who have not Christmas in theirhearts will never find it under a tree. So, when the greetings and the carolshave ended, when the angels have ascended to heaven, and the wise menhave returned to the east, never forget that the light that once shone on amanger still brightens the world from afar. Yes, listening hearts still hearangels, and wise men and women still follow a star. I leave you with thesebeautiful lines from Pauline Havard: THE DOOR IS OPEN The door is open! Go in and then share The nativity scene, so inspiring there! The door is open within any heart Where love’s lantern gleams. Be one of the Wise Men, if you desire, Or one of the shepherds who left their fire In the chill of night when they heard the news. You may be any or all, if you choose; May come anytime to a Bethlehem! When you reach love’s door, go in with them; When you come out, you will carry a spark From that stable’s lantern into the dark, Which will help you to lead those under black skies To the glow and the hope where the Christ Child lies.5 Charles Fillmore, “The Symbolism of Christmas”, Unity, December 1981, pp 62-3.
A CHRISTMAS BLESSINGMay you have the spirit of Christmas which is peace, the gladness ofChristmas which is hope, and the heart of Christmas which is love. Amen.