Friday, 23 December 2011

Faith and Fairy Stories

Christmas is a time for fairy tales.

There's that one about the jolly old fat man in a red suit, who travels around the world at the dead of night in a flying reindeer-pulled sleigh and climbs down chimneys undetected to leave us with free stuff.

Then there's that other one ... the one about a very unusual baby, born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, to a couple who had never slept together and yet - so the story goes - had not been unfaithful either. This birth was accompanied by strange signs in the heavens and the baby had strange visitors who would otherwise not even have known he was there. The God of the Universe had decided to visit His creation, and this was how He chose to make His entrance...

Nowadays, both stories are generally treated with considerable scepticism. Most people over the age of about 3 or 4 know the fat man story is just a fantasy - told by parents, purely for the purpose of injecting some extra magic into the festive season. As far as Jesus is concerned though, no serious historian would doubt that he existed, but whether some of the stories we have about the details of his life should be trusted or taken at all seriously, seems a lot more debatable.

The Bible contains 4 different accounts, by 4 different authors, which tell the story of a man who was more than just a man. This man performed incredible miracles - he healed lepers and blind people, he walked on water, he even raised people from the dead. And then - the greatest miracle of all - after being tortured and killed by the Roman oppressors, he rose from the grave on the third day and appeared to more than 500 of his disciples, before ascending bodily into heaven!

For a good chunk of the last 2,000 years, the truth of this story has been more-or-less taken for granted by the majority of people in the western world, but nowadays we are more sceptical. Miracles like that don't really happen. People don't walk on water and they certainly don't come back from the dead, so how can any account like that be taken seriously? The alternative? - his followers must have fabricated, or at least significantly exaggerated these stories after his death.

But if this is the case, his followers must have known that the stories they were spreading were a lie. They saw Jesus crucified (this event is recorded elsewhere, not just in the Bible), and knew that he was dead and buried. At the time at least, their hopes and dreams must have died with him on that cross. They really had believed - as had many other people - that Jesus was the Messiah - the prophesied deliverer that most Jews had been pinning their hopes on for hundreds of years. To see him naked and dead on a Roman cross must have shattered everything they had lived for. Where did they get the energy and resolve to carry on? And not just to carry on, but to found a worldwide movement that spread and flourished in the face of intense persecution, including severe torture and loss of life for those who had started the story in the first place.

Did the disciples really make it all up? The driving force which enabled the new movement to survive in the face of such incredible opposition was its adherents' belief that one day they too would rise from the dead, just as Jesus had done. Either that happened or it didn't - either the disciples' hopes died with Jesus, or something incredible happened to turn everything around - you can't just "exaggerate" a story like that!

I wonder which "fairy story" you believe...?

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