On Thursday night, it will be read millions of times. This will happen all over the world. In thousands of languages, people of faith will share the same story. What is “it”? What is the story? It is the story of Jesus’ birth as recorded of the first twenty verses of the 2nd chapter of Luke’s gospel. We’ve created a fictitious story to surround one kernel of historic truth. Each year, we lie to ourselves without knowing or wanting to care about being misled by pastors and pageants alike. Ninety years on from the birth of a child, someone decided to tell a story that seemed to fit with how others thought “it” should have been. The truth didn’t matter then, nor does it now.
Jesus was born. Let’s accept this as true. I’ll call it a fact. How, when, or where he was born are questions to which we don’t know the answers. (That informational vacuum has no impact on my faith.) What we are reading as fact in Luke 2:1-20 was written almost a century after the story the author is attempting to tell. We are not reading eyewitness news. It is a legend early Christians told to each other. It’s how they understood how Jesus came to be. For so many 21st Christians, our Christmas celebrations are like Civil War historical reenactments. We dress up in pretty costumes and pretend we’re living out history. This is not what we’re doing.
In reality, we’re dressing up in our bathrobes and lying to each other about the most important event in human history. It really bothers me that we have to obfuscate the details of Mary and Joseph’s journey and perennially pretend shepherds grazed sheep in the dead of winter in order to eventually talk about the birth of Jesus.
Contradicting stories about a run of the mill census, which Caesar was in charge (Tiberius or Augustus), and tax plans seem eerily similar to the intricacies of America’s modern political headlines. While we will fact check the daylights and live and die by the details of one presidential candidate’s remarks over another; we’ll gladly repeat the factual (and contradictory) inaccuracies of scripture, turn them into dramatic productions, and miss the message because what we believe happened is more important than what Jesus represents.
Why is Jesus’ presence not enough for us?
Why do we sing glory to God in the highest? Can anything or anyone be higher than God?
Why do the wise men bring him unusable gifts? Why should we care about what gifts they bring?
Why do the shepherds work schedule or reactions matter?
The questions I’ve asked are often the “main” points in many Christmas plays, sermons, pageants, and hymns. Within each of their answers lies one telling point. We, our reaction, what we do, and our lives are the focus of Christian Christmas celebrations. Jesus’ presence is never enough. We have to add on the angels, shepherds, and kings to make things interesting. In short, we put ourselves in the story. We need to be the center of attention for Christmas to make any sense at all. Jesus, the baby born in a manger to an unwed teenage mother isn’t enough to make it interesting. We can see that on the news, after all. Why bring something so relevant into church, it might bring people down! Heaven, and God (who simply acknowledging as “God” isn’t enough, we have to add the sobriquet “in the highest”) must open up like it’s the end of the world. Jesus will eventually go out of his way to show he’s not a king. He will die to prove he’s not an earthly king. For this one night, we’re going to show that we know better and treat the poor baby like an earthly king who shops at Macy’s and Nieman Marcus. Who is this story about, us or Jesus? Are we focusing on our narcissistic desires to tell the story “right” or Jesus’ inherent selflessness? How do we tell the greatest story ever told without making it a reflection of our own self-interests? That can’t be spiritually healthy.
Keep the focus on what we should be glorifying and praising. It’s not about you. It’s about telling someone else the news. The first persons to hear the good news were the shepherds and then they witnessed to Mary (who actually gave birth to Jesus). Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt us to do a bit more talking about Jesus among ourselves. Again, even the shepherds returned the focus onto Jesus when they encountered Mary and Joseph. I think that’s what Luke is trying to tell us. Perhaps there are some conversations we can begin amid the bathrobes, donkeys, camels, and hymns of Christmas Eve. It might even be fun.
Thanks for participating in the questions and sharing in the dialogue.
Have a Merry Christmas