Tradition versus Fact versus…
Having recently watched the DVD, “The Star of Bethlehem,” which seems to be going viral among our churches, I am struck once again about the power of our traditions. When you ask the average person to describe the star, they will probably describe something to the effect of a preternaturally bright and large star with rays that somewhat resemble a cross. Yet, the DVD (and the Bible) implies something far more subtle, otherwise, why would the Jerusalem court be so baffled by the appearance of the magi, and question them so carefully?
Did Washington chop down the cherry tree? What was the real story of the First Thanksgiving? What really happened in any of a number of historical events that time or cover-ups have hidden? Did many of our Christian symbols come from pagan sources or was it parallel development and common symbolism?
Now for the real question: does it matter?
Or when does it matter?
When we first teach students about the structure of an atom, we use a solar system analogy. Then after a while, we tell them that picture is nearly completely wrong, at least as far as the electrons are concerned. Yet, there are conveniences/uses in maintaining the ‘wrong’ picture of the atom, at times.
Does it matter that the star is likely a very subtle, yet amazing astronomical feature? Yes, because it reveals the complexity and beauty of God’s providence and glory. No, because the tradition and the things based on the tradition (carols, paintings, stories) also communicate the power of the nativity to peoples’ hearts and souls, drawing them closer to God. I have no problem holding both in my mind. I know the truth, and I appreciate and benefit from the ‘artistic license’ history and tradition have taken with the facts.
They say that most legends have a kernel of truth within them. So why the legend? Why not keep the truth alone? Humans respond to story, and they (we) like stories larger than life because it inspires and teaches us. There is usually a place for both truth and truths, as long as each points to the Truth.