What is it that is truly worth searching for? Is it the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Aladdin’s lamp? The Golden Fleece? The Ring of the Niebelung? But a search should lead to a discovery, and one cannot find what exists only in the mind. Yet, mythology reminds us that we are all missing something we need to find, and that the search for it will exact a heavy price.
Philosophers, as their name indicates, seek wisdom. This puts them on a plane of realism, even though wisdom may be elusive. What did the Magi seek? They must have known, in some deep and dark way, that what they were destined to discover would justify the magnitude of their undertaking. In the words of T. S. Eliot, it was “the worst time of the year/ For a journey, and such a long journey: A hard time we had of it” (“Journey of the Magi”).
“Here is the important point,” writes G. K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, “that the Magi, who stand for mysticism and philosophy, are truly conceived as seeking something new and even finding something unexpected. . . . The discovery is, in this case, truly a scientific discovery.”
The Christmas story is not merely a beautiful and endearing story. It is a historical event and the “scientific discovery” of a truth that discredited all competing mythologies. It gave religion a new birth, one that was the personification of truth. It was also significant that it was born in a cave, a place where one is not likely to search. “It is easier to perceive error than to find truth,” wrote the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.”
In the years following the Nativity, repeated attempts were made to remove the truth factor from Christianity and place it side by side with the likes of Jupiter, Mithras, Osiris, Ammon, and any number of other mythological characters. Christianity’s continued refusal to adapt itself to pagan mythology was the turning point of history, for it exchanged myth for truth, thereby providing a light that would illuminate and transform the world.
Polytheism represented a kind of broadmindedness, but one whose ever-expanding population of mythical images never attained truth. As Chesterton has insightfully pointed out, “the whole world once nearly died of broad-mindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.” One religion connected to truth is infinitely more valuable than 1,000 mythologies that are not. The wisdom of the Wise Men is personified in their inclinations to the truth they ultimately discovered.
Benedict XVI has reiterated the Christmas gift of truth in his book, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. He refers to Christmas “as embodying the victory of demythologization, the victory of knowledge, and with that the victory of truth.”
The gift of truth that distinguishes Christianity from other religions is, naturally, a great gift, one that has no end of beneficial and practical applications. And yet, within the broad tolerance of polytheistic religions, it has been viewed as intolerable.
The thought that the Christ child might be the true king was intolerable to Herod. The claim that Christmas brings truth into the world in the person of Jesus Christ is intolerable to many non-Christians. The American poet, James Russell Lowell has famously referred to “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne.”
Christianity continues to refute the relativism and the interchangeability of non-Christian religious images. And in so doing, it has often obstructed the political purposes of those religions.
Truth, no matter how under-appreciated, remains a great gift. It is the only thing that separates religion from myth, superstition, and idle fancy. Christianity does not claim that other religions are bereft of truth, only that truth is an essential and uncompromisable feature of a true religion.
Christmas meant that the view that held sway, namely that poetry or politics provided the basis of religion, was no longer valid. Replacing myth with truth is progressive, though myths die hard. Truth has not always been received with eagerness, even though our minds and hearts are made for truth.
The gift of truth should be received, like any gift, with humility. Because of the greatness of this gift, the humility it engenders should also be great. It is a gift that inevitably will arouse envy, jealousy, questioning, and even denunciation. Therefore, it exacts courage, patience, and fidelity. Truth is entrusted to the virtuous.
The truth of Christmas that enraged Herod would later be scoffed at by Pilate. Christmas is a time for rejoicing, but one should not lose sight of the challenge it offers, for rejoicing can be truly heartfelt only when it is conjoined with truth. Let us all enjoy a truly merry Christmas.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell and Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, R.I., and professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario.