A pdf copy can be read and printed here.
Part I (here) in this two-part commentary observed how the national Thanksgiving observance has been traditionally framed in a religious context; expressing our gratitude to a deity that dispenses blessings in an indiscriminate way. It makes little sense to me, so I subsequently reject such a notion of a theistic “god.” If I am truly thankful for anything, it is the sufficiently sacred now, and nothing more.
The Christmas holidays are even trickier for those who give even a token nod to a long-held doctrinal claim of orthodox Christianity; that a theistic god somehow enters into the human story, rather than a notion of a sacred whole arising out of our own consciousness and human imagination.
How then might a self-professed non-theist celebrate the nativity of a Galilean sage from days long gone by, and call it holy? It lies in an ancient message that – more often than not – runs counter to the cultural and political climate; but is central to the authentic character and teachings of Jesus.
A Non-theist’s Christmas
In case you hadn’t heard, it’s okay to say “Merry Christmas” again. As I wrote this commentary, president-elect Donald Trump had just uttered this proclamation on his victory tour. Standing behind a podium that read “Merry Christmas USA,” he reiterated a campaign promise made almost a year ago to a throng of Christian fundamentalists at Liberty University.
“You go into a department store now, right,” Trump said. “When was the last time you saw ‘Merry Christmas?’ You don’t see it any more. They want to be politically correct. If I’m president, you’re going to see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores, believe me, believe me. You’re going to see it.”
“Hey, we’ve been doing it for the last 22 years,” says Rev. Rob Schenck from Faith and Action. That’s a religious organization that annually stages a live nativity scene on the steps of the Supreme Court. Actors in biblical costumes portray Mary, Joseph, and a real live cooing newborn baby, shepherds, Wise Men, townspeople, angels.
“And that’s not all,” says Rev. Schenck.“We even include the animals that likely surrounded that first CHRIST-mas scene at Bethlehem (Schenck’s capitalization): a donkey, sheep—and count them—not one, but TWO LIVE CAMELS! So, you can see, here at Faith and Action, we take saying MERRY CHRIST-MAS very seriously!”
Then there’s the closer: “BUT WE CAN’T DO THAT HERE WITHOUT YOUR CONTINUED AND GENEROUS HELP. So, If you believe we should keep saying ‘Merry Christmas’ in this dramatic, meaningful, memorable and compelling way, PLEASE MAKE YOUR TAX-DEDUCTIBLE GIFT RIGHT NOW!”
Having now been emancipated from the shackles of political correctness, I feel freed to speak my mind about how I might best observe Christmas. Or, CHRIST’S-Mass, as those religiously zealous fellow Americans feel compelled to do on the doorstep of our highest court in the land. It’s a court that constitutionally guarantees and protects both a separation of church and state; as well as the freedom of religious expression in any form without fear of a ban at the border, or required registration.
So here’s how I would express it, as a non-theist who deliberately bypasses the notion of a theistic god taking human form; since – along with the idea of a virgin birth – just isn’t that original or unique to Christian mythology alone. But as one of those minority voices who nonetheless still seeks to affirm a good news message in this mythic Christmas tale that still echoes the “voiceprint” of a human Jesus.
A Brief Review
Anyone who has ever read the source material for the amalgamated tale commonly known as the “Christmas Story” (the Christian scriptures) knows there are several separate and distinct versions that differ both in factual detail and – more importantly — theological intent.
The earliest canonical gospel (Mark, dated approximately 4 decades after Jesus’s death) contains no story of Jesus’ birth at all. He either had no source material, or no interest in the matter, or neither. And John’s late gospel (written decades after Mark) has so elevated the entire gospel about Jesus to such a lofty narrative that so few of the words attributed to his Jesus character are hardly considered authentic to the historical figure that there isn’t even a historical footnote about Jesus’ birth. Besides, the whole business about the “Word of God” becoming human flesh and dwelling among us results in a pretty dull script for a children’s pageant to enact.
It’s Matthew (dated 82-85 CE), followed shortly thereafter by Luke, that give us the two familiar versions, or variations. Matthew has Jesus born in a house in Bethlehem. Matthew’s version has the magi, the star, Herod’s treachery, and the holy family’s subsequent flight to Egypt. Luke’s got the shepherds, angels and a manger in a stable, because they were just visiting Bethlehem and Joseph had neglected to make hotel reservations. In Luke, there’s no post-partum flight to Egypt. Rather, Mary and Joseph head to the temple (presumably Jerusalem) 8 days after birth for the child’s circumcision, according to Jewish tradition.
Matthew’s version is primarily concerned with the infancy narrative fulfilling Jewish messianic expectation, including tracing the genealogy back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. Luke instead traces Jesus’ line back to Adam, the father of the entire human race. Since that includes me, I tend to like Luke’s fanciful tale better …
In his little book, The Birth of Jesus, Jack Spong puts it plainly, “The literal accuracy of both narratives falls apart on close examination of the two radically inconsistent and contradictory texts. They cannot both be true. The probability is that neither is true. They are interpretive narratives intended to say Jesus was the designated messiah from the moment of his birth.”
That’s right. But the real question is, designated by whom to be what kind of a messiah? This, I believe, is what is required to be asked by anyone of us who would presume to wish anyone else a Merry Christmas. And here’s how I try to answer this question for myself.
The real question is, designated by whom to be what kind of a messiah? This, I believe, is what is required to be asked by anyone of us who would presume to wish anyone else a Merry Christmas.
The “Christ” in Christmas
There have always been universal themes and elements to this ancient story that not only make it a mythic tale that is as true and universal as any human story could ever be; but as contemporary as this last week’s headlines, as well.
For instance, Matthew’s quaint Christmas tale has the holy family fleeing the wrath of the regime in power across the border, before the slaughter of the innocents. And Luke’s timeline for his version mentions Quirinius, then governor of a an ancient country called Syria.
Nowadays, the character playing the part of Matthew’s Herod is Syria’s Assad; while the stage is set in Aleppo, instead of Bethlehem, and the borderlines for the refugees running for their lives are simply known by another name.
There’s Luke’s inference about the inhospitality of an innkeeper who owns a chain of luxury hotels around the world; and would not hesitate to tell you it’s simply smart business to not let out rooms to people who can’t pay.
There is the whole motif of messianic expectation, so prevalent in Jewish history and mythology; the dominant theme being the restoration of the royal line of King David; versus that less popular pitch about the servant who sacrifices self instead of achieving presumed greatness by putting themselves first. The results are often a rise of nationalism arising out of fear of the ‘other;’ with a desire to build walls and restore a perceived former greatness. It’s nothing new.
It all leads one to ask, if you’re going to say “Merry Christmas” again, which Christ in Christ-mas are you talking about?
As far as I’m concerned, we need a whole new “Christology.” That’s just a big theological term debating what constitutes the nature of what kind of messiah would be given such an honorific title. I would suggest we do away with any perceived usefulness in making a (theistic) god out of a human being, who was actually named Jesus (“one who saves” us from ourselves), instead of Emmanuel (“god with us”). In the end, it’s the only thing that makes sense out of a crucified Christ, and any ‘god’ that is anything but powerful.
If Jesus is to be named ‘the Christ,’ is he the one who was born somewhere, sometime – no matter where or when –who is likely to have said something to the effect, “The poor and the peacemakers are the ones to be favored,” And who taught, “The one who would be first must be last, and servant to all.”
Or “Love your neighbor as you would yourself.” Or “Heck, love your enemy, while you’re at it.” “Turn the other cheek,” “Forgive seventy times,” “Give to anyone who asks, not just your shirt, but your coat, as well.” “And don’t get me started about touting your riches to prove your business acument, let alone your salvation.” Is that the Christ to be celebrated this holiday season?
To hell with any political correctness. I’ve finally found something on which Mr. Trump and I can agree, at last. We can both say “Merry Christ-mas” again.
As long as we don’t simply say it, but mean it, as well.
© 2016 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive go to
http://wordsnways.com and http://thechristianprogressive.com