In the beginning, the world was in darkness because all of the light was contained in a ball that was controlled by an evil chief, so the raven, the shapeshifter, took the form of a pine needle and floated down the river from which the chief’s daughter was drinking. She swallowed the pine needle and became pregnant and gave birth to a baby who was the raven. One day, the baby was fussing and would not be comforted so the chief gave the baby the ball of light to quiet him. At that, the raven took form, grabbed the ball of light, and flew into the sky to share it with the world.
If that story sounds familiar, similar but not quite the same, it is a Native American story about light, darkness, and a virgin birth. There is at least one other version, in which the chief kept the world dark because he thought that his daughter was too ugly to marry. He kept the light in a series of boxes like nesting dolls, and the raven-child came back day after day to play with the boxes until there was only the ball of light left. The chief said that because he loved his grandson so much, he could play with the ball of light, but just for a moment. In that story, as he flew away, the raven was so overjoyed that he missed an eagle, who attacked him, causing pieces of light to scatter and to become the moon and stars. In that same version, when the world was illuminated, the chief saw that his daughter was beautiful.
Obviously, I like these stories in part because they feature the raven. I am not Native American but the stories endure because the Native Americans had the great fortune and misfortune to contact a culture with a tradition of written language. My own people, the Celts, who also had a nature religion and who also revered the raven, did not contact a culture with a tradition of written language and so many of our stories are lost.
However, this is one of the stories that scares many fundamentalist Christians. It is similar to what they believe, but not exactly and literally the same. I haven’t read “Myths to Live By” by Joseph Campbell in a long time so I don’t recall if this particular story of a virgin birth, or if the common cross-cultural stories of virgin birth, were one of his examples, but Campbell’s point is that these stories are essential to the human experience, are true within our shared existence, even if they are not literally and factually true. The stories that we tell ourselves tell us about ourselves and they are true because they must be true.
It should be cold here in Pennsylvania. Right now, it’s not but it usually is, and here in the northern hemisphere, it is dark like it always is at this time of year. It’s no surprise that multiple cultures have holidays that involve light. Chanukah is a lesser Jewish holiday that gets a boost from coinciding, appropriately and approximately, with Christmas, but both are festivals of light, and there are others. In this darkness, in the gloom of late dawn and early dusk, we need light. Our religions serve us even as they call us to serve each other and God.
Karl Marx famously wrote that religion is the “opium of the masses.” Four more misunderstood words have rarely been written. First, religion is of the masses, chosen by the masses, and not for the masses, imposed by aristocracy. Second, opium is a narcotic, not in the colloquial sense of an illegal drug, but a drug that induces narcos, Greek for sleep, and an analgesic, a drug that eases pain.
One of my favorite Demotivators, long ago discontinued by Despair.com, is a picture of a boxer taken just as he takes a punch to the face. Sweat flies and his face distorts and the caption reads, “Agony: Not all pain is gain.” When pain serves us, to limit or guide or even motivate us, then pain is good, but pain is far from being an effective or efficient warning sign. If it were then a paper cut would not hurt at all, a malignant tumor would cause agony starting in the first moment that it formed, and an amputation would hurt for 20 seconds, then stop, so that you would know that, say, your foot was gone, so you’d apply a tourniquet, call for help, and then the pain would stop because you had received the message. Pain doesn’t work that way. It’s often misdirected, missing, out of proportion, wasteful, and pointlessly disabling, and there is nothing wrong with stopping pointless pain.
The rest and recovery response is the complement to the fight/flight/freeze response. When the threat is gone – vanquished, vanished, or distant – then we go into rest and recovery to heal our wounds and allow our stress hormones to decay, autonomic responses to return to baseline, etc. We need rest and there is a good argument to be made that all of these blue screens, like on your computer and your phone, that interfere with the production of melatonin, and our 24/7 world, are denying us a chance to come down out of combat mode and to rest in heavenly peace. The Judeo-Christian concept of the Sabbath, a day of rest, was a day created by religion to benefit humans.
So we have a religious holiday built around a great frenzy of activity, but then a chance to rest, and an expectation of abundant light amid the darkness, which cannot overcome the light. We have a common, shared story of virgins giving birth, which I don’t quite understand on the surface level except for the belief in direct divine intervention in the earthly world, which is the definition of a miracle, the times when things are so wrong that an independent spiritual force steps in to set the world right. More than that, whatever the virgin birth story stirs in our subconscious, it is something that must be stirred, that must be right.
For Christians, today is Christmas and we have made it. We have rediscovered and redefined our friendships and our families, answered the call to generosity and charity both comfortable and uncomfortable, survived the insane flurry of activity and gained a day of rest. May we all sleep in Heavenly peace.