John Bennison Words and Ways

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Taking the “Christ” Out of Christmas

Celebrating the Holy Nativity of Jesus

Adoration” by Gentile da Fabriano  Tempera on panel, 1453

Adoration” by Gentile da Fabriano
Tempera on panel, 1453

A pdf copy to print and read is here.

 

 

Now when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord – as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “ Every male that opens the womb is to be considered holy to the lord.” Luke 2:22

 

The other day a bumper sticker caught my eye which read, “We still call it Christmas.” I took it to mean the annual plea by so-called true believers in the birth of a divine being in human form for us all to remember “the reasons for the season.”  The orthodox Christian doctrine of the incarnation (lit. “in the flesh”) is the annual observance of Jesus’ birth being one and the same as a godhead taking human form in a cultic (that is culture-shaped) celebration generically referred to as “Christ’s Mass.”

The challenge for a progressive Christian who has moved beyond such notions as virgin births and gods disguised in human form come to save us from ourselves is to remember that it is as much a historical development, as it is a theological one. That is, the attribution of a “Christ” title accorded a very human Jesus constitutes the imaginations — if not machinations — of an early Church; consisting of very human, second-generation followers of a 1st century Galilean peasant sage and itinerant preacher. And who all but drowned out the authentic voice of the one who was once born and dwelt among humankind.

Such an assertion is simply based on the fact the historical Jesus never self-identified as the “anointed one,” the Christ.

As such, if one were to remove the Christ-title from the various birth narratives of those secondary traditions of this religious movement, what would remain of the “Christmas story” that has become as prevalently assumed, as it has been unexamined? If we took the Christ out of Christmas, what might remain of that still, small voice?

In a prior commentary I suggested what an open-ended “creed” might look like for one who has moved beyond the encumbrances of a fixed set of beliefs one no longer finds credible; and consider instead how one might still act in a world that is so clearly at odds with what many scholars and lay explorers have discerned to be the core teachings of a very human Jesus. To do so, however, requires us to use as our only roadmap the very texts that include some of those very nativity dramas reenacted each year; generically referred to as the happy holiday season of peace and goodwill to all.

First, let’s remember that the earliest writings we have about Jesus – an anonymous collection from which the synoptic gospels drew source material – contain no birth narrative. Of the four canonical gospels, the earliest one (Mark) has no story about Jesus’ birth either; while the latest written gospel in our New Testament canon only has the highly stylized logos poem of incarnation, about the co-eternal Word that “became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) Only Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (2:1-22) give us two different tales about the birth of Jesus, from two different theological retrospectives. By far the more elaborate and fanciful of the two is Luke; without which our children’s pageants would be a rather sparse one-act drama with a very small cast.

The contemporary scholar/writer, Jack Spong, suggests the familiar Lucan birth narrative be understood as an allegory; an extended metaphor, where all the characters in the magical tale symbolically represent someone else, or something else. As such, the enduring power of this story lies in the fact it is our human story; which we ought reenact for our own benefit, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Without fail each holiday season, contemporary variations of an ancient, universal story can be found.

The enduring power of this story lies in the fact it is our human story. Without fail each holiday season, contemporary variations of the ancient, universal story can be found.

Recently, a Canadian couple were vacationing in Hawaii. Because she was six months pregnant and their universal health care system was not actually universal, they took the necessary precautions. The mother-to-be got the doctor’s permission to travel, and purchased medical insurance for the period of time they would be in another country.

But when Jennifer’s water broke and the baby was born nine weeks early, hospitalization and extensive medical treatments in intensive care for the newborn resulted in the delivery of a $950,000 bill, along with the new kid. Blue Cross denied coverage, claiming there was a “pre-existing condition.”

“Who can pay a million-dollar medical bill? Who can afford that?” asked the new mother. “It makes you sick to your stomach.”

At first, the plotline sounds reminiscent of an old familiar story: “Everybody had to travel … Mary was pregnant. It so happened while they were there the time came for her to give birth, and she gave birth to her first born …” (Luke 2)

What should they do next? Another variation of the old story suggests, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee …!” (Mt. 2:13)

Not to make light of the murderous treachery of Herod’s tale in Matthew’s gospel, it too sounds all too familiar. The recent memory of Newtown is hardly a year old, while this holiday season the news from Islamabad, Pakistan brings us the story of the massacre of 130 innocents, mostly school children.

With or without the birth narratives in the canonical gospels, the core messages of Jesus’ teachings begin to emerge from wherever the gospel writers and their early faith communities pick up the trail. The Christmas “allegories” merely give birth to a movement inspired by the Galilean sage’s message.

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