Ian Harris Otago Daily Times December 11, 2015
THE Christmas season is in full swing, and the symbols are all around us: tills ringing merrily, Christmas trees twinkling, Santa waving cheerily from scores of parades, Rudolph’s reindeer nose glowing red again, office parties celebrating the end of another year and the start of the Christmas holydays.
Meanwhile the distinctively Christian element of Christmas, which once was its core, has become steadily more marginal in the public’s consciousness. Some households ban the old stories as fairy-tale irrelevance, and substitute Santa and his elves and the Grinch who stole Christmas.
If relevance is the touchstone, the biblical stories win hands down – but they need to be read through an appropriate lens. They were not written, nor should they be read, as hard, historical fact, though there is bedrock fact at their core. Scholars of the Jesus Seminar in the United States sum this up as: “Joseph was engaged to Mary; Mary was pregnant; she gave birth to a son; they named him Jesus.”
Without that, no one would be celebrating Christmas in any form. They might be celebrating something else at this time – mid-winter in the northern hemisphere, mid-summer in ours, family togetherness, the summer holiday break – but it would not be the traditional Christmas.
Even Christians would not be celebrating Christmas if it had not been for Jesus’ life and crucifixion, and his early followers’ sense of his continuing influence at the deepest level of their lives. But for that, no one would have bothered to write about his birth.
And when, decades later, two of his followers did, they were much less concerned to give a factual report of Jesus’ beginnings than to pass on what he had come to mean to them in the intervening years.
The modern way to do that would be through learned papers, conferences, seminars and attempts to throw light on people’s experience from the standpoints of psychology, philosophy and theology. The old way was to convey the essence of it all through stories.
In those stories the details were not as important as the links they triggered in the minds of their hearers – links to their history, their religious traditions, what was happening in the world around them, the impact Jesus had had on them.
Matthew asked himself how he could make sense of Jesus in light of his Jewish background. Part of his answer was to compose a birth story, beginning with a genealogy tracing Jesus back through the kings of Israel to Abraham, the father of the Jewish race. He tells his story in such a way that listeners would hear echoes of ancient Jewish heroes – the dreamer Joseph who saved his family from starvation in Egypt; Moses who delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt; the glory days of King David. Luke, writing for non-Jews, takes the broader canvas of the whole human race. So his genealogy traces Jesus’ family tree back beyond Abraham to Adam, the mythical ancestor of all humanity, and brings in prophets, instead of kings, in the line after David.
Both their gospels apply verses in the Hebrew Bible to Jesus, sometimes with little regard for their original context or intent. They do this to show Jesus as the one who fulfilled the Jewish longing for a messiah who would usher in a new golden age. Not only was he descended from David, but he was born in Bethlehem, David’s city (though they rather blunt the connection by insisting that Joseph was not actually his father).
Matthew emphasises Jesus’ royal credentials with a star throwing a spotlight on Bethlehem, astrologers bringing gifts, and the local King Herod panicking at the prospect of a rival. Luke points rather to Jesus as deliverer of the poor. So Mary gives birth in a stable, and it is announced to workaday shepherds. Interweaving all that is the poetic embroidery of angelic messengers and a heavenly choir.
In our secular world, taking the stories literally snuffs them out – yet the Christian imagination would be much the poorer without them. They wear so well because of what they point to, namely that in Jesus we get a glimpse of what Godness in life and life in Godness can be.
The stories, says Anglican Bishop John Robinson, are recognised ways of saying God is in all this: “Jesus showed his followers a new kind of living, a new kind of loving . . . In him they glimpsed something of the final mystery of life itself.”
Sure beats Rudolph and the Grinch.