I write an ‘Alternative Advent’ email series every year, this year I’m going to post the text of the emails here two or three at a time, in case you miss any or simply don’t want to sign up. If you want future emails in your inbox, you should go here.

I suppose we’re all used to the Christmas story now, if you live in the UK then by the time you’re an adult you’re likely to have heard it dozens of times, hundreds perhaps. This familiarity leaves us almost immune to the bizarre and jarring details of the story. For a start we tend to combine the different gospel accounts to make one story, ignoring the fact that they are quite different – contradictory even. They are certainly written with different audiences in mind, so it’s reasonable to think that the writers are trying to make different points.

To tell the truth the whole of Christmas is pretty weird, long-time subscribers will know that I’ve tended to call it absurd. We celebrate it by bringing a tree into our house, for pity’s sake. Then, because of course trees themselves are famously ‘a bit plain’ we chuck a load of shiny things on them, sometimes we even put an angel on the top, or a fairy, which seems like an uncomfortable thing when you think about it.

One of the weird or absurd aspects of the Christmas story is the whole thing of Jesus’ miraculous birth. It has become an article of faith for certain strands of Christianity which won’t brook any talk of the Christ having been born by natural means. So the miraculous birth is a key part of the tradition of Christmas weirdness. Even a claim to uniqueness in certain quarters. But there are many stories of miraculous births or miracle children from around the world. Over the period of Advent I’m going to tell a short version of a handful of them. It’s an Advent-ure that will take us around the world and across long spells of time. Think of it as one of the less exciting Doctor Who episodes, one where the Doctor just goes around hearing about miracle births over and over again and wondering what they can tell us about our contemporary world. Because there is something, perhaps more than one thing, that we can take from it all. But there’s no Daleks. I’ll try and finish each day with a thing or two to think about or talk about with… I dunno, whoever you talk to – so for today: What does the idea of the virgin birth mean to you? How important do you think it is for Christians (no assumptions from me about whether you are one or not) to believe in the ‘reality’ of a virgin birth?

The birth of Qi

It’s quite common for a people group to have a founding myth – a story that tells them about themselves, why they are here, and how they are fundamentally different to other people. These stories need to have an origin point, where did we all come from? If you’re particularly unfortunate you may have read something I wrote about this on the subject of Green Men. I might return to Green Men later in this series, you never know your luck. Anyway, there are other creation myths, like the story of the birth of Hou Ji.

Hou Ji’s mother was Jiang Yuan, a consort of an Emperor called Ku. This was in what is now China by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed. The story dates back to around about 2400 BCE. Ish. According to the hymn ‘Birth of our people’ the virgin Jiang Yuan ‘trod in a toe-print’ made by God and became pregnant as a consequence. It was one of ‘those births’ “no bursting, nor rending, no injury, no hurt…” Hou Ji is also known as Qi, which, I understand, also means ‘abandoned’. This makes sense in the context of the hymn which also tells us that the miracle baby was cared for by sheep and oxen, and then visited by kindly wood cutters. Hmmm… sounds a bit familiar. Eventually he grew up to be a miracle worker. Pretty cool, but haven’t I heard this story somewhere else?

Hou Ji is understood both to be of the lineage of the Yellow Emperor, aka Huangdi Neijing a mytho-historical figure (in other words he is probably partly historic, partly mythological, like… I dunno, King David?) And he was also a divine figure. Again, not an altogether unfamiliar idea to those of us who have read other stories of miracle births perhaps. It makes you think though… What do you think when you hear stories like this which don’t belong to your tradition? How do the sacred stories of other cultures fit into your understanding of the way that the world works? What other founding myths do you know?

The birth of Mars

Second only to Jupiter in the Roman Pantheon is Mars, the god of chocolate. No! The god of war! Except he wasn’t always the god of war, but we’ll come back to that. Mars’ mum was Juno, the queen of the gods of course, anyway, one day Juno was touched by a magic plant (could happen to anyone) and ended up giving birth to Mars. It’s an everyday tale of divine folk.

In case you’re a bit rusty on your Roman gods, Juno was the daughter of Saturn and the wife of Jupiter. The top female deity really. She was also the protector of Rome, so pretty hardcore you might say. But Juno is a complex figure, which is the least you’d expect of a deity really, and like all these gods of classical antiquity it is what she represents that is important. Ultimately Juno is the god of fertility, in our culture fertility has become a privatised thing I suppose, but then of course it was much more of a social concern, because fertility was about wealth. Juno then is the god, or goddess, of wealth. Her first born, Mars, was conceived by a plant and therefore was the god of crops and harvests. I perceive a link…

But as time wore on Roman wealth became about something more martial than planting beans and such. It was about empire, and with that move, Mars changed role too, becoming the god of war. Juno is pretty fierce too by the way. What purpose do these deities serve in the Roman world? They stand for the things that society holds dear – the fertility of humans, animals and plants, the protection of a people, and the ability to take stuff from others by force. These gods aren’t just strange deities that sit on a mountain top, they embody the values of the cultures who worshipped them. When or how are we guilty too of making gods in our own image? How do our concepts of what is ultimately important change through our lives? What is your instinctive reaction to the idea of those classical gods?

angelsThe book we now call the Bible is an edited collection of books – a library if you like, which has been compiled over time. For a long time there was no single collection of books, and instead there were a multitude of books which belonged to different traditions. Even today different branches of Christianity use different Bibles, with different books in, and favour different translations of individual texts.

So the books which make it in to the Bible, as you may already know, are called the ‘canon’ (from a Latin term meaning, according to rule). They have been accepted over time as being particularly special. But there are other books too, which date from Old and New Testament times, which fall outside of the canon (precisely what the canon is depends somewhat on your tradition, but there y’go). These extra-canonical books are known as ‘apocryphal’, and one of the oldest of the New Testament era apocryphal books is the gospel of James, also known as the protoevangelium of James (click through to read a version of it.)

It’s a short book, and to be fair it’s quite a good read, short sentences, lots going on. It is also very old, best guesses seem to have it pegged to the middle of the second century of the Common Era. It is written in the name of James, the brother of Jesus. That is to say a half-brother, being a son of Joseph by a former wife. There’s no particular reason to think it was written by the same person, or people who wrote the epistle of James (which, incidentally, was one of the least favourite books of monk-bothering anti-semite and reformer in chief Martin Luther, he called it a ‘right strawy epistle’).

James’ gospel tells the story of the birth of Mary, her upbringing in the Temple, her betrothal to Joseph and Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth. Key to it is the establishment of the purity (virginity) of Mary, as checked upon by a midwife. Among other interesting factors, the book contains the story of Jesus being born in a cave, which remains a popular trope to be found here and there, particularly in paintings.

It also seems to have directly influenced the writing of the Quran, containing as it does, details of Mary’s upbringing in the temple, including her angelic visitations. Mary is of course very highly regarded in Islam, and is the only woman named in the Quran. Early Islamic writers certainly seem to have been familiar with the tradition found in James’ Gospel, as well as the Gospel of Thomas, another non-canonical book, demonstrating that it was well known in the early Christian world.

Like many of the apocryphal books, James’ Gospel has some unusual details, which somehow make the book all the more fascinating. One can’t help but wonder if they rather went against it’s inclusion in the eventual canon though. The fact that there are also mentions of breasts, menstrual flows and internal examinations, with the midwife giving Mary and understated warning: “position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place”, probably didn’t help make its case.

If I were a literature-of-the-Bible teacher, I would call the idea of reading James’ gospel, ‘reading around the text’, or ‘wider reading’. And there is a lot to be gained, I think, by reading these texts. As another example, wider reading around the Old Testament Canon gives us the books of the Maccabees which, among other things, explain the origins of Hannukah. All these readings provide an amount of context to the stories with which we are so familiar. I’m not making an argument for them to be given some sort of different status to that which they currently have. But they do cast the Bible in a slightly different light, making it seem more like the kind of living dynamic text it certainly once was.

My #alternativeadvent project starts on the 2nd of December, and will run all the way through to Christmas.  I’ve been trailing this on social media for a little while now, and I recognise that some people are not entirely sure what the general idea is.

So I put together a short video this morning, just to give a little bit of explanation.

Sorry about my dodgy filming skills, but hopefully it gives you the general idea. It’s an email every day through advent, with four themes running through: the first set of emails will be on the subject of an ‘ahistorical advent’, then I will write about an ‘absurd advent’, then about an ‘anarchic advent’ and finally about an ‘atheist advent’. Essentially it’s a reflection on advent through a historical/literary lens, then through a more philosophical lens, then a political lens, and finally through a more theological lens.

I hope you’re able to join me for this, and that as we go you feel able to share your own thoughts, using the hashtag #alternativeadvent, because anything like this needs to be a conversation. And if you know me, you’ll realise I’m pretty much always up for a conversation, until about 10pm. After that, I might still be up for a conversation, or I might just be asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell.