Today is the last Sunday before Christmas. I can confidently predict that every Christian congregation -- and possibly those of other religions too -- will hear a sermon about the birth of Jesus.
I can also predict some of the themes of those sermons.
Some will use Mary’s status to urge people to do something about poverty. Or about justice. Or perhaps about historic discrimination against women. The Christmas story becomes a means of getting at a social issue.
Others will use a series of carefully selected Bible verses to prove, beyond any doubt, that God Almighty became a helpless crying baby. And/or that biblical prophets knew all the details of an obscure birth that would take place 500 years later.
And therefore, by extension, that every other word in the Holy Book must also be 100% accurate.
A friend and retired preacher calls all of this “head stuff.” It’s wonderful material to argue about. But it makes no difference at all to how you drive on the highway. Or how you treat the cashier at the grocery store.
Our evolving brains
I contend, rather, that Christmas is about having a Small Furry Mammal brain.
To explain that, I need to invoke the theories of an ordained minister, psychologist, and environmental advocate, Michael Dowd.
Our brains have evolved, Dowd says. And you can trace that evolution in our brains themselves.
The earliest life forms -- such as a single-cell amoeba -- didn’t need a brain at all.
But when the first vertebrates crawled out of the sea onto dry land, they needed some kind of brain to coordinate their fins, or legs, or whatever they crawled with.
That primitive and rudimentary brain still perches on top of our spinal cord, where it can instantly access muscle reactions to danger. It has only two programs -- Fight and Flight. (Some biologists add additional F-words -- Freeze, Feed, and Fornicate.)
That’s why you should not try to pet an alligator.
Dowd calls this our “Lizard” brain. Every human has one. Some individuals -- I won’t name him -- operate almost entirely out of Lizard brain.
The next stage of mental development, Dowd calls the “Small Furry Mammal” brain. Because all mammals nurture their young. Some do it longer, and maybe better, than others. But all newborn mammals need nourishment and cuddling from their mothers.
As brains evolved, they added a “Monkey Mind” -- those undisciplined synapses that leap from idea to idea, entranced by anything new and shiny.
And finally, the brain develops a prefrontal cortex -- the big lobe, right behind your forehead, that handles executive functions. It thinks things through. It considers alternatives, controls impulses, applies values.
Dowd punningly calls the prefrontal cortex our “Higher Porpoise” brain. Only the most intelligent mammals have it. It takes time to mature. Teenagers are still developing it, which is why so many teenagers die doing irrational things like diving off cliffs or driving dangerously.
Back to our roots
Stress -- emotional, physical, or chemical -- sends our brains backwards. When students panic during exams, they shut down their rational brain and shift into Monkey Mind, unable to focus. Similarly, alcohol tranquilizes the Higher Porpoise, which explains why drunk people do stupid things.
Fear instantly activates the Lizard brain’s irrational Fight or Flight responses -- unless the Higher Porpoise can intervene in time.
Christmas, I contend, takes us back to our Small Furry Mammal brain. Christmas incarnates our desire to be loved. To be needed. To be valued.
Whether we believe those nativity stories or not, they touch one of our most basic needs -- to belong.
Especially during the long dark nights of winter.
That’s why we gather together. In families, in congregations, in community organizations. We may not even like some of the people in our clubs, our workplaces, our churches. But we desperately want to belong. Not to be alone.
So we celebrate noisily at office parties and quietly at worship services. We hold family reunions. We radiate good cheer around dinner tables. We hear a story as familiar as a Tim Hortons donut. And we feel comforted.
Not because it supports causes we believe in. Nor because it can be proved by biblical paleontology.
Rather, because it reaches way back into the second-oldest root of our brains. The Lizard brain reacts only to threat. The Small Furry Mammal brain reacts to love. To caring.
So we rehearse and recall the story of a lonely young girl giving birth in a stable. And like the wondering shepherds, we gather around her, and welcome her baby.
And we feel that we too belong.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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I’m hurt. Well, all right, maybe I just think I’m hurt. Two columns ago, I wrote about the mass shooting at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. Last week, I wrote about the way artists have portrayed the Nativity, along with your responses to the previous column. Several of you found the responses more interesting than my column.
“What a fascinating range of replies to the column about the shooting at L’Ecole Polytechnique,” wrote Tom Watson.
Likewise Bob Rollwagen: “Your lead off contributor believes women are now looked on as totally equal by society. I guess he does not converse with women. Humans, from birth range from being born with mental or physical limitations all the way over to a genius whose brain creates images and ideas too fast for them to comprehend. Why does an eight-year-old become a concert pianist? Why are many teenagers more intelligent than most of our politicians? Why do some see life in multiple dimensions while many others find manual labour difficult?
“Jesus was born into a humble circumstance and I believe was more mentally able to understand his situation and move beyond it with a vision for the world and he did. Being a male in that period assisted his initiatives but also led to his demise at the hands of those males feeling threatened. He was that male in the room.”
Bill Shantz also got into the gender-blame issue, indirectly. “In the Garden of Eden story, can you find any evidence that the Divine Command to stay away from the Famous Tree applied to the woman? God commanded that HE not eat from the tree; not that THEY not eat from the tree.
“[Ever since], Adam and most men have routinely presumed that if a man cannot do something, neither can a woman!”
A few of you reflected on how we depict nativity scenes.
Steve Roney noted, “The halo is not arbitrary or fanciful. Notice that the halo appears regularly in Hindu iconography in South Asia, or Buddhist iconography in the Far East, just as in the Christian West. It is a real thing. Genuinely good people do tend to glow as if by an inner light; genuinely bad people tend to have something dark about them. I have seen it often enough myself.
“This sense of radiance has nothing to do with skin colour, I am surprised to see you refer to black madonnas as something ‘we would have trouble identifying with.’ Surely you know that black madonnas are common across Europe? And as to brown madonnas -- Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose shrine is the second-most-visited in the world, is brown in skin tone.”
Erica Farrell wrote, “I think we're seeing much more variety in Nativity scenes nowadays. Our church puts on a display every year and has over 200 sets for people to look at, loaned to the church by members of the congregation and community for the occasion. There seem to be new ones every year! There are sets from all over the world and they are certainly very diverse! I enjoy the non-traditional sets the most!”
James Russell added a new twist: “I heard the other day that in certain areas of the U.S., they are making nativity scenes where the baby Jesus is held in a cage, as a reminder of the thousands of children so kept (and still kept) when separated from their parents trying to cross illegally into the U.S.”
John Willems put both columns into the same context: “It seems most people like a baby Jesus and have pictured him in many different cultures and times. Baby Jesus is safe to encounter. A grown-up Jesus is more difficult to encounter. I read he gave his life for others. A high standard to follow, especially in the light of the self-centred responses to last week’s column. What happened to laying down your own life for others? Or do we just ignore the uncomfortable bits?”
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ALVA WOOD ARCHIVE
The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.