Christmas Day 2013
One of the greatest memories we carry through our lives is that of how when we were young the world was infused with magic, especially at Christmas. Awaking on Christmas Day surrounded by the gifts that Santa Claus had mysteriously and secretly placed there. Such memories are truly magic! As we grew we wondered just how it was possible for Santa to do that not just for us but for children right around the world with such speed. Our critical thinking was kicking in before finally taking us to the point where no longer could we hold Santa Claus to be real. I suppose few of us can remember the specific point where our belief in Santa died. That we fail to do so tells me that the process was not overwhelming or devastating. Our lives went on and indeed we continued to celebrate Christmas, perhaps in a religious manner or one totally secular in style but celebrate it we do!
Some of the stories and symbols at the very heart of the Christmas story are not even in the biblical tradition. There is nothing for instance to tell us that Jesus was born in a stable. Matthew actually tells us the birthplace was a house. The date of course is a direct co-option of the Roman Saturnalia festival by the Christian church. Shepherds would hardly likely to out in the fields with their sheep in the dead of winter!
When we turn to the biblical tradition the earliest of the Christian writings in the New Testament, those of Paul and then later Mark’s gospel tell us nothing of the birth of Jesus. The earliest accounts of the story we have are two almost entirely different accounts first in Matthew’s gospel and then that of Luke. The stories we have are quite incredible and make little sense to the modern mind. We can hardly more believe in stars which travel at walking pace relative to the speed of the earth, in virgin births and angelic choruses, if we are honest with ourselves, than we can believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden.
We suspect that the birthplace of Jesus was moved from its real location in Nazareth in the Galilee to Bethlehem by entirely different means by both Matthew and Luke in order to fulfil the prophetic demand that the messiah must be born out of David’s line in David’s town. One of those means of getting Jesus to that location is that whereby a worldwide census is called demanding everyone including Jesus’ family resident in Nazareth, return to their ancestral home town. Given one thousand years passing some one million people would have had to descend on the Davidic home town. Little wonder there was no room in the inn! One can hardly imagine the chaos even today if such a means of a census was called even with all our modern systems of transport.
The other means of getting Jesus to his Nazareth residence is to have him born to his family who are resident at that time in Bethlehem but who are then forced to leave due to the tyrannical desire of Herod to kill all potential usurpers, journeying then to Egypt and finally after Herod’s death returning to Bethlehem but upon finding his son Archelaus on the throne then moving residence to Nazareth, though that place too was under the rule of another of Herod’s sons, Herod Antipas. The journey of Jesus as a refugee may be an appealing one especially in the paranoia of the current political climate regarding refugees but as much as I would like it to have happened it almost certainly never did.
The stories go far deeper than being historically true. Writing 70-100 years after the event, neither Matthew or Luke would know anything of it. The births of people at ‘the bottom of the heap’ in the ancient world counted for nothing. Rather than being shaped by history the accounts are shaped by the Jewish Scriptures from which stories were used in a manner of what the Jewish people called ‘midrash’, the taking of an old story where the divine was held to be present and paralleling that story with a new figure in order to show that in this new figure the divine is likewise acting. Think of the parallels in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus like Moses has an incredible survival at birth story escaping the hands of a tyrant, must come from Egypt, like Moses spends forty days/ years in the desert being tempted, and receives or rather in Jesus’ case gives the Law on the mountain. They are shaped also by the surrounding Graeco-Roman world which is to be expected given that they were trying to appeal to that world in their proclamation about Jesus. Great figures nearly always are greeted by important figures such as the wise men and likewise foretold by ones like them. They are greeted by astrological signs and are declared to be off-spring of a divine-human liaison. These stories, myths and symbols spoke to the ancient world. They still speak to us in one way, yet in another way may stand in the way of the true and deep message of Christmas speaking to us.
Of course what the biblical writers are doing by making use of these incredible stories is to affirm something they held to be deeply true; that in Christ God has come to us, to be present with us in a very special way of total identification. The church was slow to catch on to Christmas and it was never really celebrated until the 4th century but the season does catch a profound truth, if we can get beyond the unbelievable stories and the sentimentality often associated with them. The divine has come to us and is present.
The presence of the divine consorting with humans and taking human form could be miraculous enough if it were not so common in the ancient world. Figures such as Alexander the Great and the Caesars were all said to be the result of divinity impregnating a mortal woman. Likewise there were mythological figures such as Hercules and Perseus born of such unions. The true miracle is to whom and where God chooses to be born. The divine is born to a young village maiden soon enveloped by scandal as to the paternity of this birth. The birth in all probability takes place in Nazareth, ‘nowheresville’, not even mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nazareth was in Galilee regarded as marginal by the Jewish religious establishment centred in Judea. This is the true miracle, the divine has come to be born to us on the underside of history, standing with the marginalised and the oppressed. The incarnation has a particularity about it! The call of course for us is to likewise be present in the particular place in which God in Christ chooses to dwell.
In a season of heightened celebration and even frivolity there are many who feel their suffering and loneliness all the more intensely. When others seem so happy there are those reminded more than ever of their deep and profound sadness. When others are visiting so many relatives and friends there are those who more than ever are reminded of their loneliness. Christmas affirms God’s being with us in a total manner of being and calls us to be likewise present to each other. Let that presence with each other and especially with those who are most vulnerable and too often despised in our culture, be that which motivates us this Christmas for that is the deep truth to which the incredible stories point for they affirm that it is in that particularity that the divine present in Jesus is found.
- John Queripel