FROM A READING FOR FEBRUARY 28, SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT

'Keep on imitating me, my friends. Pay attention to those who follow the right example that we have set for you.' Phil 3:17

My high school mythology course left a lot to be desired. Our teacher announced that we were studying myths only because next year we'd be reading classic English poets like Shakespeare, Milton, Shelly and Keats. If we didn't know who Zeus, Venus, Mars and Aphrodite were, we'd never understand the poetry.

"Of course," he assured us, "myths aren't true. They were created by people who, unlike ourselves, didn't know the truth."

Obviously, my teacher never read Karen Armstrong's recent book, "A Short History of Myth." Had he been able to jump 55 years into the future, he would certainly have changed his demeaning opinion of such stories.

"From the very beginning," the author states, "we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

"A myth is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information....If it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth."

Into the depths
Many of those who composed our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures employed myths to help readers go to the heart of their faith.

In today's first reading (Genesis 15:5-12,17-18), for instance, the Genesis author depicts Yahweh as actually going through the familiar covenant-making rituals which people of that time and culture used when they entered into formal, important contracts.

Such actions were normal in the culture which produced this narrative. Unlike most of their contemporaries, the ancient Israelites were convinced they related to a God who agreed to carry out specific responsibilities toward them. Yahweh was just as obligated as they were to maintain the relationship.

We, today, would say, "God signed on the dotted line." They, of a different culture, said: "God appeared [as] a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces [of animals]...God made a covenant with Abram, saying...."

They understood that, if either party reneged on their covenant responsibilities, the other could do to him or her what they had done to those animals.

Transfigured
One hint that Luke's story of Jesus' transfiguration (Luke 9:28b-36) seems to be a myth is that we're never given the mountain's name. It's just "the mountain" - the place on earth where important things happen with God.

Luke's account seems to be a mythical representation of the statement Paul makes in our Philippians passage (Philip-pians 3:17-4:1): "Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself."

We imitate Jesus' dying and rising because it eventually brings about a basic transformation of who we are.

It's probably easier for most of us to remember how Luke states the same truth: "While Jesus was praying, his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem."

Since the Hebrew Scriptures were originally referred to as "The Law and the Prophets," Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophet) convey the Christian belief that Jesus fulfills Scripture.

Along with understanding ancient faith myths, we today should also be surfacing new myths to demonstrate different dimensions of that same faith. Have you come up with any effective ones lately?

(02/25/10)