Hidden Stories of Christmas

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  (John 1:9 NRSV)

On the winter solstice, a friend sent me a link to a web page about Reindeer legends of northern lands. I had known that the story of Santa Claus is a modern version of the story of St. Nicholas, a holy fourth-century bishop known for his secret gift-giving. What I was astonished to learn is that Santa’s costume and his sleigh pulled by reindeer are a retelling of earlier stories of the Mother Reindeer who was celebrated at winter solstice in Norse and Slavic cultures, and in Lapland. Reindeer are the only members of the deer family whose females have horns. It turns out that male reindeer lose their antlers in late fall or early winter, while females retain theirs until they give birth in the spring. In winter, females lead the reindeer herds.

In cultures that depended upon the reindeer for pulling their sleighs, for food, for clothing, and more, Mother Reindeer came to be a revered symbol of fertility. In far northern places, winter nights are very long and days are very short. Not surprisingly, many northern cultures worshiped a Sun Goddess; she flew through the sky on the Winter Solstice in a sleigh pulled by a horned reindeer, a sacred event that heralded the return of the sun, day by longer day. The goddesses who presided in those cultures ate special red-and-white mushrooms as part of their religious ritual, and their ceremonial red and green costumes included red hats with white fur.

It’s natural for myths to change over time, but it’s sad to see how myths and cultural legends that once celebrated women, as well as female reindeer, were replaced by a man and a lead reindeer named Rudolph.

When it comes to stories of Light coming into the world, there’s a far more important story that’s been hidden for many centuries.

At the time Jesus was teaching his disciples, the Wisdom tradition was popular. In various scripture passages, divine Wisdom is depicted as the first creation of God, or sometimes as an aspect of God. She is associated with Light. Brighter than any light visible to human eyes, she is the divine Light out of which every created thing was created. “Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded, before the oldest of his works…. When he laid down the foundations of the earth, I was by his side, a master craftsman, delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence, at play everywhere in his world…. (Proverbs 8: 22, 30-31 NRSV)

Hokhmah and Sophia (Hebrew and Greek for wisdom) are both feminine nouns. In the Bible, divine Wisdom is often depicted as a woman. Wisdom is eager and ready to teach human beings all they need to know to prosper. She prepares a feast of bread and wine and calls everyone to her table. “All the words I say are right, nothing twisted in them, nothing false, all straightforward to him who understands, honest to those who know what knowledge means. Accept my discipline rather than silver, knowledge in preference to pure gold. For wisdom is more precious than pearls, and nothing else is so worthy of desire.” (Proverbs 8: 8-11) Most human beings, however, do not want to follow the discipline of cultivating divine Wisdom within themselves. Few come to her table to partake of her feast.

Wisdom 7:22-30 (NRSV) gives perhaps the most complete description of divine Wisdom:

She is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power,/ image of his goodness. Although alone, she can do all; herself unchanging, she makes all things new. In each generation she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets; for God loves only the man who lives with Wisdom. She is indeed more splendid than the sun, she outshines all the constellations; compared with light, she takes first place, for light must yield to night, but over Wisdom evil can never triumph.

The Book of Wisdom, along with many others, has been removed from some Bibles, classified as part of the Apocrypha (which means Hidden). But the Book of Wisdom (also called The Wisdom of Solomon), along with other books that speak of Wisdom, was not hidden in the time of Jesus.

Jesus referred to Wisdom when speaking of himself. For example, in Luke 7:34-35, Jesus tells how he is being criticized for the unconventional things he is doing, then says, “Nonetheless, Wisdom is vindicated in all her children.” In the similar passage in Matthew 11:19-20, when speaking of the miracles he had performed (which he calls “deeds of power”), Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

After his death, the disciples, apostles, and followers of Jesus, trying to make sense of who Jesus was and of his relationship to God, thought of him in relation to the stories of the expected Messiah (a human person as described in the Hebrew tradition), but also as an incarnation of divine Wisdom. Paul spoke of Jesus as “the power of God and the wisdom (Sophia) of God.” (I Corinthians 1:24)

In the time of Jesus, the opening of the gospel of John would have been understood as referring to divine Wisdom:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. …  (John 1: 1-5 NRSV)

John chose to use the masculine word Logos (which can be translated in many ways, including as Word or Reason).  The use of the masculine pronouns in the opening of John’s gospel is therefore fuzzy—it’s not clear when he is referring to Logos and when he begins to refer to Jesus. If John had used the feminine word, Sophia (Wisdom), instead, it would have been more clear:

In the beginning was Wisdom, and Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God. She was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through her, and without her not one thing came into being. What has come into being in her was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Through John’s choice of the word Logos instead of Sophia, as in many other Christian texts, feminine references to God’s and God’s emanations become hidden.

From the beginning of Quakerism, Quakers have placed importance on John 1:9, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (NRSV), translated in the King James Bible as: “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” They have noted that the same divine Light and Wisdom that Jesus incarnated is available in some measure within every person, available to teach and guide in the path of God’s Truth.

There has been a terrible cost to humanity and the earth for hiding the Light of divine Wisdom and the story of how She comes into the world. It’s time now for the Wisdom of God to shine in all, in the fullness of God’s power.

Hidden Stories of Christmas: What stories of the divine Light and Wisdom experienced within yourself have you kept hidden?

© 2017 Marcelle Martin

To learn more about the subjects in this blog post, check out the following links:

For more about Reindeer legends:  Doe, a Deer, a Female Reindeer, The Spirit of Mother Christmas and The Reindeer Goddess by Judith Shaw.

There are many books of Biblical scholarship that speak about the relationship of Jesus and divine Wisdom. One that has been of great importance to me is: Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration 1995 edition by Susan Cole,‎ Marian Ronan,‎ and Hal Taussig. A twentieth anniversary edition was issued in 2015: Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration 2015 edition by Susan Cole,‎ Marian Ronan,‎ and Hal Taussig. One of the co-authors, Catholic theologian Marion Ronan, professor at New York Theological Seminary, wrote a blog post called The Sophia Wars, in which she tells of the controversy that was occasioned in the Methodist Church at the time the book was first released.

For information about other upcoming courses and workshops with Marcelle, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.  Quakers emphasize the importance of inward experience of the divine Light which is directly available within each person.  If followed, it leads to a powerful process of inward and outward transformation.

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
This entry was posted in All of Life is Sacred, Learning from Early Friends, Radical Christianity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Hidden Stories of Christmas

  1. Mary Woodward says:

    Thank you, Marcelle: a lot to think about in your post today… wishing you and all your readers light in the darkest time of the year and access to the wisdom which is deep within us all if we can learn how to listen

  2. Ken Tapp says:

    Beautiful. Very appropriate for Christmas morning. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Homer A Wood says:

    Thanks Marcelle. I do have problems with God always being referred to as He. I have two daughters that can do everything a man can do and do it better. I also love my son.
    Merry Christmas.

  4. Karen Oberst says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful and needed post.

  5. Thank you Friend for your message. I hope you continue to develop this theme. It is an important message and one that is not understood by many. The Book of Wisdom is one of my favorite works in the scriptures.

  6. David Garman says:

    Thank your for reminding me of this very important theme during this season of the year. Our Meeting’s annual solstice labyrinth walk and your thoughts make my experience of the season full and deep.

  7. Pingback: The Best of A Whole Heart | A Whole Heart

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.