I’ve talked a great deal about how the language and traditions of Christmas shape what we believe regarding the events of Christmas. When our language is factually inaccurate, even though it is poetic and laced with tradition, the resulting practices move us further away from what the birth of Jesus was and what it should be. To me, this is a much larger problem than the commercialization of Christmas. The language we use about Christmas shapes our Christian practice and practice shapes how we live. Are we peddling a feel good myth or are we accurately trying to tell God’s story? Must we let the myth makers distort the church’s scripture, tradition, reason, and understanding each year? Is it possible to build a solid understanding of Christmas within our shared cultural framework that acknowledges gift-giving, generosity, family gatherings, and good will as central elements of the holiday? Yes, because those are the same elements at the heart of any religious remembrance of Jesus’ birth.
As I noted in a previous post, so many of the hymns we sing don’t reflect the reality of Christmas. Our stories and songs ignore the inherent “ordinariness” of Christmas. Christmas is not about the extraordinary or the miraculous. Christmas is about God working through ordinary, regular people to bring about God’s purposes and plans. However, it’s because God uses ordinary people doing ordinary things (a teenage girl having a baby, a census, etc.) that Christmas becomes extraordinary. How could a child born to such impoverished and ordinary people become a Messiah in any context? Christmas is about God’s kingdom being established in the most un-kingdom like places; you might even call them ordinary. The reconciliation of all things, the restoration of the broken fragments of humanity begins in the dirt, dust, blood, and dung of a stable. While we’re busy talking about angels singing to shepherds and the virgin birth, history is changing in an ordinary place with ordinary people. Even Isaiah emphasizes how ordinary the child would be:
He sprouted up like a twig before God, like a root out of parched soil; he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him. Isaiah 53:2
This is why we miss so much when we allow the ordinary to be overtaken by the miraculous. Think of how we emphasize the miraculous at the expense of the ordinary. The angel Gabriel arrives in Mary’s living room to tell her she will have a baby without the help of Joseph or any other man. The Old Testament prophets tell of Jesus’ birth happening in Bethlehem, although Mary and Joseph are hours away in Nazareth. Iranian psychics use a star to find the exact location of the new baby. Shepherds are serenaded by angels. Everyone converges on Bethlehem at the right time. When we emphasize these elements, in concert or alone, we’re missing the point of the story.
To be completely honest, I do not think any of this occurred. Yes, there are elements of memory woven into Luke and Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was a real person. He was born to Jewish peasant parents who were named Mary and Joseph. I think he was most likely born in Nazareth or Sepphoris. The story of the census and trip to Bethlehem were latter additions to the story. Did the angel Gabriel appear to Mary? My question isn’t did God or is God able to make a virgin conceive; it’s why is this crucial to the story? Did Matthew play fast and loose with Isaiah’s Hebrew and Aramaic to turn “young girl” into “virgin” so a point could be made to the early Judeo-Christian community about Jesus’ divinity? I think so.
What now? Do we change our practices and tell different stories about Christmas? No, we shouldn’t. We should, however, examine what we give priority to and what we’re emphasizing in sermons, pageants, and programs. Are we in love with Christmas, the miraculous stories themselves, or the changed ordinary reality represented in the truth behind the stories? I wonder if the gospel writers ever intended us to take these words as facts. When we consider that they were written nearly 100 years after Jesus’ birth, we might think they were trying to tell us something other than a minute by minute history of an event which no living person still remembered. Maybe these texts tell us more about how God changes lives, alters our personal status quos, and upsets our apple carts rather than offering a documentary account of nine months in Roman occupied Palestine. If we learn that the kingdom comes in the most ordinary of ways, even foreigners from hostile lands can come to worship God, that peasant teenage girls are blessed, dictators are cruel and brutal, or that refugee families who flee genocide need to be protected we’ve learned the truth that Matthew and Luke were trying to tell us.