Confessions of a Burned Out, Tripped Up, Fence Riding, People Pleasing, Generation X, Emotionally Challenged, Preacher from the Wrong Side of the Theological Tracks

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.

–Richard Bryant

The Reason for the Season (New)

Once we acknowledge Jesus as the “reason for the season,” what comes next? Can we leave such an important piece of information unattended and expect it to explain itself? No, we cannot. To make a confessional statement about the incarnation and the identity of Jesus requires multiple next steps. Once we’ve declared, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” what do we do? What’s expected of someone who accepts “Jesus is the reason for the season”?

Firstly, we are on the hook for living like we believe the statement to be true. We made a truth claim, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” (One of the most important truth claims in human history.) Do our lives reflect this reality? Are we on Christian autopilot, or are we living like Jesus frames our approach to gift-giving, encountering the poor, and helping the oppressed? In short, are we rejecting ideas antithetical to the infant’s reason for being?  It is easy to say a catchy phrase and get on with our lives?

Secondly, Jesus is not an abstract reason. Jesus is not a tool to be used in a culture war/war on Christmas argument. Jesus is the living breathing son of God, made flesh as the child of Joseph and Mary. Those who first came to Jesus were drawn to Bethlehem by scripture, relationships, angels, friends, and family. A quest for reasons didn’t lead the shepherds to Christ. They were driven by the idea of divine prophetic fulfillment, and a realization of God’s work for humanity was being accomplished in Bethlehem. To isolate Jesus as the single rhyming phrase “reason for the season” undercuts and devalues all God was hoping to achieve in and through the incarnation. If we’ll talk about Jesus as a cliche, who’s to say we won’t live like he’s one as well? I can imagine nothing worse than a cliched Jesus.

So who is Jesus? He is everything!  Jesus is more than a single reason representing the intricate beauty of God’s desire to be reconciled with humanity that was first unveiled in Bethlehem.

Richard Lowell Bryant

This Is What Christmas Looks Like

I love the Nativity story not because it is warm and fuzzy, but because of its overall message of perseverance against cruelty. Whether it’s the abject cruelty of Herod’s population policies or the brutality of the innkeepers “no,” at each step of the way, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

That’s the Christmas I know and love. No, this is not the Christmas where you’re worried about perfect food, decorations, or guests. I’m talking about the one where the abject cruelty of the world has attempted to intervene somewhere between God’s love and salvation only to realize that goodness triumphs over evil.

The original Christmas story is an overwhelming experience. To see the forces of light and dark play themselves out can be frightening and exhilarating. Here, before our eyes, the very emotions, ideas, and people in which Jesus spoke come to life. Will we respond in a way consistent with the gospel? Will we do justice amidst the injustice that surrounds us?

The phone rang at my office, mid-morning. The caller id said his name was Eddie. When I answered, he said he was out of gas. Stuck in the parking lot of the Piggy-Wiggly, he might have enough to make it to the gas station down the street. Could I help him? He’d been here for work that fell through, and now he needed to get back home, which was at least a couple of hours down the road.

I met him at the gas station. Eddie was working on checking his oil and power steering fluid. He wanted to take care of this minivan. It was also his home. In the place he parked, he risked the van being broken into at night, damaged, and parts robbed. He needed new windshield wipers.

That would mean a trip to the auto parts store. We drove across the street from the gas station. Eddie was able to find some oil, power steering fluid, and wipers. The men from the shop even helped us install the wipers. If it rained, he could see. His home would be safer on the small, two-lane roads he’d be traveling.

“I’m going to make it,” he said. “I have to keep trying.” I suspect those same words came from Joseph and Mary as they traveled to and from Bethlehem.

Christmas looks like many things. Our sanitized images of mangers, stables, babies, parents, and wise men are one set of pictures. Our love of tradition should not cause us to forget the reality which brings us together in Advent and Christmas. I think Christmas also looks like my encounter with Eddie. It is unpredictable and sometimes tragic. Christmas is good people struggling against poverty, homelessness, and trying to make a place in a hostile world. That’s the essence of the Christmas story found in the Gospels. If we can’t see the modern aspects of the ancient Christmas story, then we’re missing an opportunity to appreciate the Incarnation of Christ. We’ve become a obstacle to the Gospel instead of a means of sharing the message. Nobody wants to be an obstacle, especially at Christmas. Help someone along, past the Christmas barriers we’ve created so that the Incarnation may be the most visible reality in our world.

Richard Lowell Bryant