Advent rolls round once more, and the Christmas season (which marketers think started sometime around Halloween) takes center stage. Carols and decorations, candy and cookies, presents and get togethers all take on the festive holiday cheer. And, if we’re lucky, glimpses of Jesus might still emerge from time to time. Of course, in churches we want to leap-frog Advent and go right to Christmas, singing Away in a Manger and Joy to the World weeks before baby Jesus hits the hay. It is all so formulaic that it impedes a real, deep, meaningful experience of the divine. The “been there, done that” malaise overwhelms the awe and wonder aspects of what is about to occur all over again. Pastors report a jadedness this time of year. How is it possible to make the story new again?
This challenge feels insurmountable for some. Others view the season like a comfortable sweater and can’t wait to wear it again. But I’m not sure we aren’t making all this harder than it needs to be. I believe we have worked so hard for so long to embellish the Advent/Christmas saga that we have buried it under a metaphoric mudslide of good intentions. Perhaps it is time to strip off all the layers we’ve heaped on, and see it in a more simple light.
When I was a young pup fresh out of seminary, I did something naïve and stupid. (Now, as an old hound dog, I do ignorant and stupid instead…) Thinking I was being cute, I took a poll of my congregation the Sunday before Thanksgiving, asking which of the four gospel’s nativity stories we should focus on for Advent and Christmas. No one much cared to look at Mark; Matthew and Luke had some strong support, but — knock me over with a feather — the majority thought we should focus on the birth narrative from John’s gospel. (Spoiler: there is NO birth narrative in John, and I presumed much too much thinking people already knew this…). See, what I hadn’t counted on was the level of biblical illiteracy among lifelong United Methodists. By and large, we think Mary and Joseph got to the stable, Jesus popped out with a glowing halo amidst clean, well-behaved animals, and that shepherds and wise men (and kings and angels and drummer boys, and apparently, Santa Claus) all lined up to check him out all on one night. Most of our beloved Christmas carols and hymns simply add to the confusion. Most Christians are clueless that the writers of Matthew and Luke tell greatly different (and on many key points, irreconcilable) stories of the birth, and that Mark, John and Paul’s authors see the story as essentially irrelevant. Paul believed Jesus became divine at resurrection, Mark at baptism, Matthew and Luke at birth through bloodline, and John from the very beginning of eternity. I got very creative to tell the Christmas story from John’s gospel.
The historical fact or fiction of the birth of Jesus is not the important thing. We are pretty certain it happened, but we also know that the exact date, location and situation are lost to history, and that competing myths have circulated for 20 centuries. Historians call into question almost all of the accuracies of what remains — throwing some literalists into angry fits of despair. What the story means is the important thing, but it has become a battleground. We get caught up in the endless debate of “is the Bible true?” Well, the Bible certainly wasn’t written by people who drew upon a 21st century definition of “true,” that’s for sure. And shame on us for trying to read it as a history book.
My understanding of what the gospel writers intended in what we call Matthew and Luke was the establishment of Jesus in the lineage of David and Adam — essentially validating Jesus as one with authority, even in the face of a humble and inauspicious beginning. A contemporary parallel would be a poor Muslim couple with limited education, power, or prospects receiving the blessing/burden of raising the Son of God, We are talking the fringe of the fringe of the marginalized. And who would recognize the Messiah for who he is? Only others on the fringe. And his ascendency would be an uphill climb from day one, where he would meet opposition at every step — but would always rise above it. There has never been a finer message of hope for the hopeless. I don’t believe either gospel writer intended to start the crass and misdirected global phenomenon Christmas has become. Birthdays — the way we celebrate and remember birthdays — are a relatively recent development. It was no problem at all in the early centuries to move the day of Jesus’ birth to confront the winter solstice and compete with other primitive religions. No one gave a second thought to the historical accuracy of the location of the birth in light of the theological alignment with Hebrew poetry and biblical prediction. Different gospels offer different places of origin for Jesus.
The writers of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels would have seen no problem in telling different stories different ways. They weren’t journalists reporting on events as they unfolded. They were recorders in an oral culture capturing stories handed down through two generations and across multiple tribes, villages and communities to verify that Jesus was God’s own child. How amazing. How wonderful. How much we need to be reminded today that no matter how bleak and horrible things appear, redemption is possible and grace abounds.
Does John have a nativity story? Our world is so loved of God that Jesus was sent to be Savior and Lord of all. If that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is?