What to Make of the Christmas Story

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, November 26, 2017

We had a lovely Thanksgiving at our house. Robbie is home from Westtown for the week, and Ellen’s Mom is with us for two months. On Thursday, we gathered with family and friends and gave thanks. I hope you did, too. But you know what? Suddenly it’s the Christmas season.

One strict rule we have at our house: no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. But after the big meal, after the dishes are washed, it’s Christmastime. Out goes the orange and brown; in comes the green and red.   There’s a rapid change in the decorations. And there’s Christmas music for several weeks.

We love the Christmas story, and it seems like everyone does. For several weeks already, the two Hallmark TV channels have been playing nothing but feel-good Christmas movies. All over town, all over America people are festooning their streets, their stores, their homes with reminders of Christmas and the Christmas story. What should we make this? Of all the stories in the Bible, we pay the most attention to the Christmas story. We hardly pay attention to any others, isn’t that right? What’s going on here? Maybe we love the beginning but not the end.

The Bible as Stories. I‘ve come to look at the Bible as largely a collection of stories for spiritual reflection. The Bible isn’t book of do’s and don’t’s. (No it is not.) It’s a book of spiritually charged stories to puzzle over. Few of them are easy. Almost none of them have simple morals. Nearly all of the Hebrew Testament consists of stories about the Israelites trying and failing to be faithful, what God does about that, and how the Israelites try to get back into God’s good graces. Then the New Testament has four parallel stories about the life, ministry and death of a man called Jesus. He doesn’t live to be very old, he invites controversy by telling parables (little stories) that are provocative and hard to understand, and then he dies a disturbing death.

In our minds, those four parallel stories begin with the Christmas story, the story of Jesus’s miracle birth. We remember it as a big celebration that starts out with a few things going wrong and ends with everything going right.

At the beginning we have the unplanned, unwed pregnancy, angels whispering strange things to people, the prospect of shame, then the traveling for days, the hard time finding a place to give stay, and finally the indignity of having to give birth in a dirty, drafty stable. Then at the end we have a gigantic star, a successful birth, a huge party with angels and shepherds and sheep and cows and goats and chickens and mysterious robed kings, gifts that insure wealth, and hosannas and hallelujahs. It’s a story of a triumphant beginning of a life that promises no end of glory and good things. Isn’t that how we remember and celebrate it? It’s how it’s lodged in my mind, but I also know that’s not quite right.

Contradictions in the Christmas Story. For one thing, only two of the Gospels have any Christmas story at all. The gospels of Mark and John both begin the story with John the Baptist baptizing Jesus as an adult. There is no Christmas story, not like the one we are about to celebrate for a month. We’re told nothing of Jesus’s birth or childhood.

For another thing, the two Christmas stories (the one on Matthew and the one in Luke) are superficially similar but they really don’t agree with one another in the details. We smush them together to make them agree. For example,

  • In Matthew, the angels whisper to Joseph; In Luke they whisper to Mary. Said to him, said to her: this would never hold up in court.
  • In Matthew, Mary and Joseph are Bethlehem-ites. They never travel looking for a place for the birth. It’s in Luke they start out in Nazareth and have to travel for a grand census of the Roman Empire.
  • In Matthew, it’s the Magi who come to celebrate: No shepherds, no angels. In Luke, it’s shepherds and angels: No kings.
  • Matthew is a darker story. It is one where King Herod kills all the young boys trying to kill the baby Jesus. The story about the flight to Egypt, the hiding out there for several years, then the stealth move to Nazareth where they’ve never lived before: none of that is in Luke. Luke is a rosier Christmas tale.

Well, there are lots of contradictions in Bible stories. Do these inconsistent details matter? Maybe, maybe not, but that depends on what we take from the Christmas story.

Born-of-a-God Stories. One of our difficulties making sense of the Christmas story is that this is the only born-of-a-God story we know. We think it’s unique, this Mary-made-pregnant-by-the-Holy-Ghost bit. We don’t realize that born-of-a-God stories were quite common in Jesus’s time. Not among the Israelites (they didn’t tell stories like that). But among the Egyptians, among the Greeks, among the Romans, and among all the other religious groups that populated the fertile land between Persia and Egypt born-of-a-God stories were quite common.

Remember that Achilles, one of the heroes of the Iliad, had Thetis as his mother, a goddess. (She had fallen in love with a mortal.) The Greek god Zeus had any number of children by mortal women, Perseus and Heracles and Dionysus. Alexander the Great claimed he was descended from a god. Augustus Caesar, ruler of Rome while Jesus lived, claimed to be the son of a God. So did the Caesars who followed. So just think how upsetting it might be to the powers-that-be for the followers of Jesus to claim he was the true Son of God. That was a direct challenge to the Roman Empire: that’s one thing to notice.

Strange Silence. Here’s something else. After the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, there is never any mention of the Jesus’s birth in the Gospels or in the rest of the New Testament for that matter. It’s as if everyone forgot about that miracle birth. No one ever says to Jesus, “Aren’t you that guy that was born under a gigantic star?” Or “aren’t you the one the Magi came and showered gifts on? Whatever became of all that gold? Do you have a trust fund?” Or even, “wow, you must be the real deal! I remember what a fuss the angels made about your birth. That was amazing!”

Not a word. If no one in the Bible remembers, why do we make such a deal out of it? The collective amnesia is all the more surprising when we remember that the Gospels are full of hints and suggestions and confusions about whether Jesus really is the Son of God. Wouldn’t this have clinched it, if someone had just said: “Remember the amazing birth, the Magi and the angels and all that?”

Family and Gifts. So what’s the message? If we take the Christmas story all by itself, one thing we find in it is the importance of family. After all, it’s one of the few genuine family stories in the Bible, parents and children together. We tend to think of the Christmas story as being about generosity and gift giving. Joseph did make a family with Mary, the innkeeper did find room in a stable however humble, and the Magi did travel long distances to offer gifts. So we gather as families and give gifts in celebration.

Charles Dickens artful telling of A Christmas Carol perfectly captures these family and giving threads. But Jesus doesn’t make an appearance in A Christmas Carol. We can take Christmas as a family and gift giving celebration if we want and many do. But if we do we’ve pulled it completely out of the Bible and made it a standalone story.

After their Christmas stories, both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist. And remember that’s where the Gospels of Mark and John both begin. Maybe that’s the true beginning of the stories of Jesus. Who knows where this man comes from, but John the Baptist, a special person, sees him as special. And so begins Jesus’s ministry with its ending both tragic and triumphant.

So why these two added Christmas stories? Maybe the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke were added later to foreshadow what was to come. Starting a gospel with Jesus’s miracle birth makes the story one that begins in glory and ends in glory, even if there are painful moments at both ends along the way. If other important people had child-of-a-God aspects to their biography, then the Christian hero would as well. Is that it? Is that why it seems so tacked on?

Now Comes Something Different. For me here are some other takeaways from the Christmas story — beyond family and gifts.

  • God often surprises us, and rarely when we expect it. That’s one.
  • Every birth of a child has the promise of something special. That’s another.
  • Now comes something different. That’s the one I want to lift up.

This Jesus that is born in glory turns out to be completely different from anyone else who has a “born-of-a-God” beginning. Those others were garden-variety heroes, strong warriors, born to rule and to dominate others. Those others (Achilles, Alexander, Augustus) become powerful. They dominated others. They had the ‘right stuff’. Now in Jesus we have something completely different. Strength is turning the other cheek. Love, not power is the major chord. Peace seeking, humility and simplicity are the order of the day.

For me, it’s not possible to understand the Christmas story without thinking about the other stories about Jesus that the Gospels tell, the stories after the Christmas story. These are stories that challenge us to live a different life.

Every so often you read a story about a guy who seemed to have everything: smarts and charm and wealth, and then it all goes bad. Everything sours. He ends up without friends, in prison, and finally he’s executed. Maybe he was guilty of something, maybe he wasn’t. But he’s forgotten soon after the news story. So sad, we say.

Jesus’s story is like that. It starts in glory and ends in execution. Only we’re not supposed to think ‘so sad’. When Jesus dies, he is ushering in something completely different; he triumphs. But he triumphs only if we follow the new way: the way of love and forgiveness. We certainly won’t see that surprising triumph if we only remember the first part of the story, the part in which he is born having it all, a good family, wealth and adoration. It’s what happens next that really matters. So stay tuned. Can we make the new way triumph?

And Merry Christmas everyone.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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