One of many dismaying ecclesiastical events of my formative years was the Catholic Church's sudden 1984 announcement that eating meat on Fridays was no longer a mortal sin. Bad enough all those hamburgers and hotdogs sacrificed to mackerel and catfish. What really got me was the fate of those uncounted millions of souls who had been consigned to hellfire for all eternity by St. Peter's keys to the kingdom. Would they get a reprieve and be allowed to migrate heavenward, albeit a bit blackened around the edges? Apparently not! If one doctrine can so arbitrarily be discarded after centuries of confessional enforcement, what, I wondered, about so many others?
Now archconservative Pope Benedict XVI, in his latest book, "Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives," admits a few other things never made a lot of sense; infallibly ex cathedra, has pronounced an end to them. First, the year of Jesus' birth, known for millennia now as anno domini, "year of our lord," "A.D.," he admits is problematic. Being a close critic of the written word it never made sense to me that King Herod tried to kill the infant Jesus when secular history incontrovertibly records that Herod himself died in 4 B.C. "Never mind," the nuns and priests told me, "some things are mysteries and better not questioned." I suppose we're still asked to ignore the actual historical event, which was a senatorial decree to slay all male children on the birth of Octavian (later to be called Augustus) in 63 B.C. In "The Infancy Narratives," His Holiness admits that the Jesus birth year of record has been mistaken for nearly 15 centuries due to a sixth-century clerical error and should be reassigned to 7-6 B.C.
Second: It always seemed an uncanny convenience to me that the sacred date of our annual Christmas celebration of the savior's birth, coinciding with the winter solstice, is found in nearly every single ancient pagan religion -- some predating Christianity by more than a millennium. Mithra, Horus/Osiris, Dionysus and the Phrygian savior Attis all share the same birth date. Even the Christmas tree can be traced at least as far back as Attis rituals circa 400 B.C. (imported to Rome by conquests). The ritual involved the cutting down of a pine tree and installing it, branches covered with candles to shine the way home through the darkening days. All that said to me is that the story of Jesus was founded in ancient myth -- which made it all the more momentous as far as I was concerned. Now the Pope tells us that we actually have no idea when exactly Jesus was born, and that, in fact, December is just a solstice-appropriate date that need not be taken literally.
The same Pope, by the way, once declared that the greatest problem with Christian doctrine was our scholarly inability to make the historicity of Jesus credible: "the so-called historical Jesus is a mythological figure, self-invented by various interpreters." But, then, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wasn't pope yet when he said that .
Third: On my knees each year marveling at nativity cribs -- which ranged in size from the six-inch one beneath the family Christmas tree to the full life-sized crib on Gilham Road in Kansas City or in St. Peter's Square, both of the latter generally involving live animals -- I couldn't help wondering if poor Mary, Joseph and Jesus really had to deal with the rank breath of camels, ox, ass, sheep and cows. Now, it turns out, this Pope doesn't believe the camels, ass and oxen were literally there either. Thank God believing in them was never an issue of mortal or even venial sin!
Fourth: There's also an awful lot of talk in the Pope's new book about Augustus Caesar, bringer of universal peace, divus filius divi, "God and son of God," being called soter ("savior") -- a "theological figure" who arranged that history be started from his reign, the true origin of the term anno domini. Is there indeed a hitherto unadmitted "link between Jesus and Augustus"? After all, one of Augustus' many epithets is Jasius -- after a Trojan founding father of Rome.
Maybe His Holiness is simply intent on redeeming Christianity from the literalists who hijacked it two millennia ago and who never seemed to notice that their literalist beliefs are self-contradictory.
As we reach a time in American history when fewer than 50 percent of the U.S. population claims to believe in the Christian God, the Pope's scholarly conclusions illustrate more clearly than ever that it's not necessary to believe literally in any organized religion's founding story.
All religions are based on universal myth: the myth that humans are capable of aspiring to the divine urges within human nature as much as we are capable of sinking into the bestial ones. That is what the ancient fish diagram (two conjoined circles with the area of conjunction forming the fish), first popularized by the Egyptians, symbolizes. The fish in the image is formed by the intersection of the two natures, divine and bestial, within the human species. That is what the term christ originally meant long before it was attached by historical literalists to a carpenter who supposedly walked the dusty roads of Judea. At the end of the day does it really matter whether a man named Jesus actually lived, when the mythic idea of Jesus resonates through the ages, shining through the darkness of the evil that haunts us, and enlivening our hearts with (nonsectarian) Christmas hope and joy?
The characters in Dr. Atchity's latest book, 'The Messiah Matrix' (www.messiahmatrix.com), discover an alternative theory of Christian origins in the pontifex maximus of imperial Rome. (@kennja)