Yesterday, we began our Christmas week series through Revelation chapter 12. You need to start from yesterday, or this won’t make sense. To be honest, it might not make sense even if you do, but you want to give yourself the best chance…
So we’ve read Revelation 12 and identified the woman as “Mother Zion” – the true mother of the real saviour of the world (not Mother Rome and her emperor-son). But who are the other characters in this Christmas drama?
As we saw yesterday, the woman gave birth to a child. But the birth was difficult. Most are, as any mother will tell you, but I’m guessing none of them had to put up with a seven-headed dragon at the end of the bed waiting to devour your child as soon as it emerged? (Although we had a midwife who came close…)
Revelation 12:4a The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
And just in case we can’t guess who the dragon is, we’re told a little later, in verse 9:
Revelation 12:9a The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.
But what’s Satan doing here, at the birth of Jesus? I don’t remember him from any of the nativity scenes. (I’ll play my horns for him, par-rup-a-pu—pum?) What does this represent?
Again, at one level, there’s probably a hint of King Herod, who posed a threat to the infant Jesus right from the beginning, thanks to the wise men not keeping their mouths shut. (Now there is an argument that the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel are fictional characters; I mean, men, stopping to ask directions… not the most realistic aspect to the story.)
At another level, Satan was lining up with far more than just King Herod to throw at Jesus. And we see that played out thirty-odd years later, when this male child – this promised saviour – is put to death on a cross just outside Jerusalem.
But amid both those perils, God was with this child, protecting him. Although the dragon thinks he’s about to devour him, in both cases he’s “snatched away” to God and his throne. God warns Joseph in a dream, and he’s snatched away to a place of safety, in Egypt. And just when it looks like the dragon’s won, God snatches his child back from the grave, raising him to life and seating him in the heavens at his side. The great monster is thwarted in his plans, and the Son of God completes his saving mission.
Haven’t we heard this before?
But that seems like a lot of effort to go to, just to re-tell the Christmas story, adding in dragons, spewing serpents, and images of pagan goddesses. Was that really necessary?
The thing is, this wasn’t a new story, even in the first century. The first readers of Revelation knew this story in another guise. Actually there was a whole bunch of variations, but the one best-known to John’s readers would have been about the birth of the Greek god Apollo.
In this myth, the god Zeus gets the goddess Leto pregnant. His wife’s not too happy about that, understandably. So she sends Python, a serpent monster, to pursue Leto. But Zeus protects her using the gods of wind and sea, and shelters her on an island. Leto then gives birth to Apollo, who grows up to defeat and kill Python.
There’s a similar story in Egyptian mythology, too. It involves Isis (again, the goddess, not the death cult), who, as we saw yesterday, is often depicted using Queen of Heaven imagery. She gives birth to the sun god Horus, whose life is threatened by a red dragon, who’s also a serpent. Again, the child is miraculously protected from the danger of water, and the child eventually slays the dragon.
Do you get what’s going on here? In Revelation 12, the story of Jesus is being re-told using the imagery of Mediterranean mythology. Or to put it more simply: John tells the Christmas story using the pop-culture references of his day.
And not just for the fun of it. Not just because it’s a clever thing to do. But to make a very serious point. A very subversive point, when you know that Roman emperors like Nero and Domitian often cast themselves as the incarnation of the god Apollo.
By putting the Christmas story in these terms, John’s telling us who the true saviour of the world is. It’s not the emperor, as much as he might like to portray himself as one. It’s Jesus. Born not out of Rome, but out of Israel. (In fact, in the very next chapter of Revelation, Rome is portrayed as an evil beast who’s on the side of the dragon. We looked at that a few weeks ago.) Jesus is the true hero, and his birth is the one everyone ought to be celebrating, not the emperor’s.
Jesus is the fulfilment of what lies behind these pagan myths: the desire for a hero to rise up and defeat evil.
The great saviour
Now this might seem a bit of a weird point to make. Jesus—fulfilling pagan myths? Yet we talk about fulfilment all the time with the Old Testament. All that the Jews were expecting, all that they were longing for, the restoration of all things—all of this finds its fulfilment in Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah.
Sure, this Jewish longing was helped along by prophets and revelations from God. But should we be surprised if we see this kind of desire in other cultures? Among all people? This longing for a hero to come, to battle against the odds, and ultimately to defeat evil on our behalf. It’s a universal longing; a universal story.
So John re-tells the Christmas story using the language of these stories from his culture. Showing how Christmas isn’t just the fulfilment of Jewish expectations, but the fulfilment of all of humanity’s deepest desires.
It’s like today, 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 Neo, sacrificing himself to free others from the Matrix. Or Obi Wan Kenobi being struck down, yet becoming more powerful through his self-sacrifice. Or 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 merchandise.)
As Tolkien himself once put it: “in Christ, myths become reality in human history.” That is, the stories that tap into our deepest longings, our greatest hopes—those become real in Jesus.
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 ‘cause all of humanity 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.
Even all of those tedious, lame Christmas movies that get trotted out each December: on some level, they’re all pale, shallow imitations of the Christ story. Granted, in these movies humanity isn’t in peril because of sin and death – merely because Christmas might be cancelled and there’ll be no presents. But we still have the tale of an unlikely hero battling against the odds to save the day—be it a small boy on the polar express, a disfigured reindeer, or even Tim Allen.
The Christmas story isn’t just the nativity scene. It’s the fulfilment of what all of humanity is waiting for. In every time. In every culture. Even if a lot of the time we don’t recognise it.