Morling College Blog
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Tuesday 5th December 2023
My favourite telling of the Christmas story is also the strangest. It’s not in any of the Gospels. It doesn’t contain most of the elements found in traditional nativity scenes—like fluffy sheep, mangers, weird baby-shower gifts, and underage percussionists. And it doesn’t so much proclaim peace on earth, as declare war in heaven.
Revelation chapter twelve is an apocalyptic telling of the Christmas story; it reveals what’s going on in the spiritual realm. In place of the star over Bethlehem, it describes a sign in the sky: a woman—clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head—about to give birth to a saviour-king. A dragon-like serpent-monster waits to devour the child; yet the child is miraculously kept safe and the serpent is defeated. Clearly a depiction of Satan’s defeat by our Saviour, Jesus, right?
Yes, it is! But there’s more to it than that. The sun-clad woman not only conjures up Israel-shaped memories of Joseph’s dream about the sun, the moon, and his eleven sibling stars; it would also have reminded a first-century audience of the Queen of Heaven, often associated with the goddess Roma, the divine embodiment of the city of Rome. The story of a saviour growing up to defeat a serpent-monster is told in terms reminiscent of the god Apollo defeating Python. And first century Roman emperors like Nero and Domitian often styled themselves at the incarnation of Apollo, demanding to be worshipped as a “saviour.”
So what’s the point of this?
Firstly, it’s a very subversive message. The Queen of Heaven is not Mother Rome, but Mother Jerusalem: the people of God. She is the one who has given birth to the real saviour of the world: not some deluded Roman emperor, but Jesus, God’s true king. It’s a reminder for us today that the Queen of Heaven isn’t Mother Washington, who goes into labour every four years in the (rapidly diminishing) hope of squeezing out the next saviour. Nor is it Mother Science or Mother Humanism, or any other human power or institution or cause or movement. This Christmas, as our world looks increasingly hopeless even by its usual low standards, it’s a reminder that Jesus alone can save us.
Secondly, it’s a very relatable message. It tells the Christmas story using the imagery of Mediterranean mythology; thought it might seem weird to us, it’s using the pop-culture references of its own day. It’s like if we cast Jesus in the language of a Frodo Baggins, off to defeat the evil Sauron once and for all, against the odds. Or Obi Wan Kenobi being struck down, yet becoming more powerful through his self-sacrifice. Or even Marlin, battling sharks and jellyfish and fishing trawlers to go bring back his prodigal son, Nemo. (We still have myths these days, we just like to film them and use them to sell merch.)
It shows that Christmas isn’t just the fulfilment of Jewish expectations. It’s the fulfilment of all of humanity’s deepest desires, from every time and culture. As Tolkien himself once put it: “in Christ, myths become reality in human history.”
Have you often wondered why people who aren’t Christians still like the Christmas story? Why there’s a universal fascination with the nativity scene, even where there’s a rejection of God? It’s because everyone wants to hear the words “unto you is born this day a saviour.” Even if they don’t like the next bit about him being Christ, the Lord.
So as you retell the Christmas story this year—in your churches, families, schools, and communities—be confident that it is the answer to our world’s deepest longings. Jesus is the hope of the whole world. Our only hope.