Christmas falls on Sunday this year. Even though it’s special to have the birthday of Jesus fall on the Lord’s day, I expect church attendance to be low. Really low. Maybe half, if we’re lucky. Why is that? Let’s be honest: Christmas has become a holiday. It’s no longer a holy day. To understand why this is we have to look back and see what’s changed.
In pre-modern times, there were two approaches to knowledge: symbolic and rational. The symbolic approach was embedded in the religious stories and rituals. It was the expertise of the prophet, the priest, and the poet. The rational approach helped people understand the stars overhead and the ground beneath their feet. It allowed them to craft better tools, engineer better bridges, and raise healthier animals. Both approaches – symbolic and rational – were held in equally high regard. The same was true in pre-modern Christianity. The sacred stories (Scripture) and rituals (sacraments), on the one hand, and sacred beliefs (theology), on the other, were equally important.
The Greeks called these two approaches: mythos (myth) and logos (reason). In our modern, scientific age the word “myth” has fallen into ill repute and means a story that’s untrue. “Myth,” in this earlier sense of the word, doesn’t mean a fairy tale. As one famous anthropologist explained, it’s “not merely a story told, but a reality lived. […] It expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficacy of ritual and enforces practical rules for the guidance of man” (Bronislaw Malinowski, “Myth in Primitive Psychology,” 1926). A myth isn’t just something to be understood and believed, like reason. It’s a program for reform. It points to a better way to live.
Myths and rituals are mutually reinforcing. In ancient times the two were always tied together. As Karen Armstrong explains, “Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it. Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally” (The Case for God).
By rejecting sacred stories and rituals, secular modern man has lost his core. There’s no more grounding for values and no more source for meaning. Jungian psychologist James Hollis puts it neatly: “When the gods are not expressed inwardly, they will be projected outwardly.” That’s why at this time of year the Christmas cookie has replaced the communion wafer. The materialistic rituals of Christmas (gift buying and giving, binge eating and drinking) leave us emptier than before we filled our homes and stomachs with more stuff.
I’m not a Puritan who wants to cancel Christmas. I like a lot of those outward projections. I don’t want to give them up. But when opening presents or cooking Christmas dinner trumps going to church on Christmas Sunday, I think it’s time to call timeout. It’s time to re-evaluate our sacred myths and re-engage with our sacred rituals. Going to church on Christmas morning won’t solve the problem, but it’s a good place to start.