Five simple facts about Christmas:
Fact 1: There are no facts about Christmas. It’s all myth and imagination. Except that Jesus was born somewhere, at some time. Probably Nazareth. Probably 4 BCE.
Fact 2: Myth and imagination are more potent than facts. They convey meaning and hope. They can boot us into action.
Fact 3: Given that Christmas is about myth and imagination, the ongoing relevance of Christmas is up to us. We make Christmas happen, or not.
Fact 4: There are two Christmas stories in the Bible – scholars call them ‘infancy narratives’ – one in Matthew’s Gospel and one in Luke’s. Both are add-ons. In other words they were written last, after the rest of the gospel that follows them. They are overtures [to use a musical metaphor] – they give you clues about what is to come.
Fact 5: The purpose of these overtures is to engage your heart. The purpose is to evoke in you feelings of wonder, rage, curiosity, compassion, and generosity. Acted upon, directed aright, and in cooperation with others, these feelings can change the world. And that’s the purpose of Christmas. You and I can light up our world.
But as I said, whether Christmas becomes true is not up to the Bible, or Jesus, or Santa… it’s up to you and me.
So, mindful of these simple facts, let me introduce you to Matthew’s characters:
Firstly, there is Joseph, and his fictitious genealogy. Outside of Christmas he doesn’t exist. His name is likely a reference to the 12th son of Jacob, and is included due to the ‘Jesus-as-the-new-Moses’ rhythm that runs through this first overture.
Joseph acts as a kind of literary device. His presence legitimatizes what would otherwise be an illegitimate birth. He adopts Jesus into his hereditary line.
Mythically Joe exemplifies two strands in the thwart world of fathering. Firstly, he wants to do the right thing, but he’s not sure what that is. He needs a nudge from a wise mate [also known as an angel]. Secondly, he’s secondary. He’s not the main act. It’s a mother and baby show.
Joe does get with the ‘right thing’ programme – abstaining from you-know-what before the birth, fleeing with his new family to Egypt, and then coming back again. He did though need an angel to instruct him in all this. After they land up in Nazareth, we never hear about Joseph again.
When you think about it the Joseph myth does not serve male spirituality well. The joys and responsibilities of being a partner with Mary in miraculously creating, giving birth to, and then later shaping a new life are not there in the text. Like a man shut out of the delivery suite when his child is being born, Joe is a bit distant from it all. A contemporary author could have given him the role of midwife??
Secondly, there are the angels. Unlike in Luke, Matt’s angels don’t have names. Given that the word ‘angel’ is the word ‘messenger’, these angels could be anyone. They could be a rough-sleeper, or an abandoned child, or a witch. They are people who spoke counter-intuitive truth to Joseph, and to whom Joe listened. I think of them as Joe’s good mates. Maybe they are simply his dream subconscious having a discussion with his wide awake self.
Thirdly, there is a fictitious Herod, styled more on a particular Pharaoh from the Moses tradition. This Herod is pretty dumb. The Zoroastrians turn up, following the star, looking for the new luminary, and Herod trusts them to come back and report their findings?? Yeah, right. The story lacks a little inner cohesion at this point.
The point of course is that non-Jews seek out the baby Jesus and pay him homage. Jesus, as the rest of Matt’s gospel will tell us, was not just good news for one racial, class, or faith group. Jesus, though a devout Jew, was a boundary-breaker.
The Zoroastrians [also known as Magi] have been the subject of many a Christmas card. They were presumed to be men, presumed to be a three-some, and presumed to be kings. They were also presumed to have converted to Christianity. The biblical text makes no such presumptions.
The presents – the genesis of the whole consumerism-at-Christmas industry – are of course symbols of royalty, worship, and death. How the symbols fit together will take the rest of the gospel to explain. Note though that they are an uncomfortable fit.
So, that’s Matthew’s cast: Joe, Joe’s angelic mates, a bunch of Zoroastrians, and an intellectually-challenged and killer king. Mary is in the background. It’s all about the blokes. And the blokes’ lessons are these:
trust your counter-intuitive angels;
be kind, non-judgemental and look after women and kids;
be generous to wierdos, religious or otherwise – they may be on your side;
and don’t trust kings.
And then there’s Luke’s fictitious account of Jesus’ origins. It is highly unlikely that Matt and Luke compared notes. Their overtures, like their gospels, are trying to say different things. They are singing different types of songs.
In Luke we begin not with baby Jesus but baby John the Baptiser. Remember that a number of Jesus’ followers used to follow whacky ol’ terrorist John, do the locusts and wild honey diet, and predict the demise of the powerful. Luke fabricates that Jesus and John are not in competition, but cuzzies; and John is not the superstar, but the support act. Anything miraculous about John, Jesus is one better. My guess is that the authentic Jesus would have cringed with all this.
Then there is Mary. She’s the one whom Gabby the angel visits. She’s the one who embraces the difficult and potentially disastrous reality of an illegitimate pregnancy and bearing a bastard son. She is the one who has faith. And it is on her lips that Luke places the song we know as the Magnificat.
Now the Magnificat, known fondly as ‘the Mag’ amongst choristers, is a piece of work. Scholars think it’s from the earliest strata of the Jesus movement. It’s stroppy. It’s unsettling. It’s promoting the losers, and ditching the winners. Given that the Emperor and the Empire are the winners this little choral work is enough to get you killed.
So Mary isn’t just a garden in which the miracle of God grows. She isn’t just a ‘yes if you please, thank you’ handmaiden of an overbearing angel. She is a revolutionary. She is a leader in the upside-down, topsy- turvy movement of Jesus. No gentle meek and mild mother is this woman. You’ll find her on the barricades.
Then there are the choristers - those angels on the hillside serenading the shepherds. Political little misfits singing the titles of the Emperor [‘bringer of Good News’, ‘Saviour’, ‘Lord’] upon an illegitimate peasant baby. Lucky they could skedaddle back to heaven afterwards.
And lastly there are the shepherds. Probably an attempt to make a linkage with ol’ King David whose humble origins supposedly included shepherding. And look what happened to him? Greatest king Israel ever had. ‘Just you wait, this kid in the barn is going to be great.’ Well, for the David-philes, Jesus was a great disappointment: no land, no army, no Goliath killed, no wealth, no servants, no kids, no wives, no concubines, no hypocrisy… Jesus just didn’t make the kingly grade.
Shepherds in 1st century real-time were low life. Juvenile delinquents. Fencing stolen goods. Fleecing good people. They were the kind whom King David would have drafted as slaves in his army, and Jesus would have used as examples of faith.
So, that’s Luke’s cast: Baby John the support act, Gabby the angel, red Mary, red angelic choristers, and scumbag shepherds. Joseph is in the background. It’s all about Mary, her politics, the politics of the Empire, and the egalitarian politics of Jesus.
And the lessons:
Be suspicious, be very suspicious, of those who think John and Jesus sang from the same song-sheet, or that Jesus and King David had anything in common.
Honour Mary. But don’t dishonour her by making her the perpetual mother, the handmaiden of the holy male trinity. Honour her instead for her vision. Her willingness to be misunderstood. Her tenacity. Her politics. Her faith.
The earliest Christian writings make no mention of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem, Joseph, a star, Magi, shepherds, angels, and all that. These infancy narratives, compiled probably in the early 2nd century, introduce the Christmas pageant characters. Yet within these stories are some authentic themes from the adult Jesus’ life:
He followed his own star along a path of counter-intuitive wisdom. That path was called compassion. Costly compassion.
He was political. Treating the last first and the first last is political. Calling the worthless worthy is political. Getting crucified is political.
He mixed with unmarried mothers, religious nutters, and low-life. He included them in his vision of what the world could be.
His truth was that all of us have it within us. ‘It’ being light; divine potential. Potential to change the world for the better.
And remember Fact 5: The purpose of Christmas is to enlist you, sign you up. It’s to engage your heart. The purpose is to evoke in you feelings of wonder, rage, curiosity, compassion, and generosity. Acted upon, directed aright, and in cooperation with others, these feelings can change the world for the better. And that’s the purpose of Christmas.