Aloha, Namaste, Howdy, and Ho, Ho, Ho. I bid you glad tidings of great joy.
Let us begin in the beginning! Christmas makes as good a place to start as any. In a perfect world, if there were no guardrails and I could say whatever I wanted from the pulpit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, it might look like this:
I’m tired. I’ll say that from the start. I’m tired of saying things year after year that contradict long-held scholarly consensus, academic convention, and what I was taught in seminary. I do this because I fear offending people and making them angry if I challenge even the slightest aspect of something they’ve always believed to be true about Christmas. I do not want to alienate anyone. I only want to do the job I was trained to do and do it well.
In a world so rife with division, we could use more truth throughout our denomination and the church. I’m not attacking faith. Faith is what I preach, proclaim, and live. However, I believe we can be faithful people without asking each other to ignore history and science and unwittingly embrace the problematic aspects of the Christmas and Epiphany stories year after year.
I know virgin births were a common motif in divinity origin stories among the ancient Near East religions. Jesus’ and Mary’s account of a virgin birth is not unique. What matters is that Jesus is born. The how isn’t important. We’ve created a theological framework linking our salvation to Mary’s virginity. Who came up with that idea? A man. A human man, not a divine being. Men have a history of calling the shots over women, their bodies, religion, and sexuality. I’m a parent of three daughters. I’m a man and a feminist.
The church celebrates the birth of the Christian son of God on a co-opted pagan Roman holiday for worshiping the pagan son of God: myth becomes history then history becomes myth again. This cycle has repeated itself for two thousand years. Why can’t we keep things simple and tell the truth? Jesus was probably born in the spring. Christmas works for our market-driven 21st economy, but it’s not historically accurate. I should be able to say this from the pulpit without fear. What matters is that Jesus was born. I have faith in his birth. That, to me, means more than anything else.
Let’s talk about the Wise Men. Can we believe the Holy Family hung around in Nazareth for months (or years) after Jesus’ birth? No. At the same time, Zoroastrian astrologers chased a wandering comet to somehow end up right on his doorstep. It’s a great story, but it’s not true. It’s a beautiful and colorful invention on Matthew’s part to show Jesus’ appeal beyond the Jewish people, but after two thousand years of nativity plays, we’ve come to believe a falsehood; three guys (we assume three because of three gifts it could have been ten, the text doesn’t say an exact number) showed up to pay homage to Jesus. It’s a weird story and a little dark when you consider it. This low-income family from Galilee, unable to return to Nazareth, was being used as political pawns between these “unsuspecting” foreign dignitaries and King Herod’s machinations for genocide. How could the wise men not have sensed Herod’s evil intentions? If we take Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the innocents at face value, they were crucial to Herod’s plan to murder hundreds of innocent children. As the story stands, the Wise Men are accessories to genocide. Today, they would be tried as war criminals in an international criminal court. We regard them as side players and bathrobe-wearing extras in our nativity pageants. No, they do not belong.
Historians, for decades, have looked for evidence of a large-scale genocide of children in the region around Bethlehem during the years 4-6 BCE. None has ever been found. There is no historical or archaeological evidence of Herod’s massacre of the innocents. To fulfill the prophecy that Jesus needed to come “out” of Egypt like a new Moses, Jesus and his family needed a reason to be driven into Egypt. Matthew provided one. Do we need to hinge our faith in a manufactured genocide? The wise men never arrived in Bethlehem because the precipitating event which drove them home “by another route” never occurred.
What does this do to our image of Jesus as a refugee, fleeing Herod’s persecution to live in a foreign land (Egypt)? This, too, rests in the category of Matthew’s embellishments. Perhaps Christians should help refugees because it is the right and moral thing to do, not because Matthew claims that Jesus was a refugee. Do we not have an obligation to aid the poor because it is right to help them above and beyond the fact that Jesus was poor? If we’re only doing the right thing because our stories tell us to do so, then what on earth are we doing?
What’s wrong with letting Jesus, the redeemer of humanity, stand on his own two feet? Isn’t Jesus strong enough to warrant our attention span without these admittedly good yarns? Why do we believe our faith, to survive, needs to be woven through misrepresentations, outright distortions of the truth, and fantasy? If I knew that, I wouldn’t be telling you what I don’t dare preach on Christmas.