I posted this originally around Christmas 2014, when I was on a medical leave of absence from work. It’s a sermon I’ve preached several times – once some twenty years ago in the Parish of Pender and Saturna Islands in British Columbia, then at the 2013 Christmas Eve service at the Parish of St. Mary the Virgin, Oak Bay BC, at the 2015 Christmas Eve service at St Matthias, Victoria BC, at St Dunstan’s Gordon Head in Saanich BC in 2017, and most recently at the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas, Crete. I have now retired it!
Ah, the Christmas story. We’ve seen it in pageants, in children’s Christmas books, in movies telling the story, narrated in Christmas carols, and parodied by Monty Python and thousands of others. We think we know it.
And yet, when we actually turn to the Bible, to the New Testament accounts, we find that it is actually a number of stories that have been melded together by church teaching, theological reflection. The voices might be complementary, but they are distinct and very different.
Tonight I want to take you through not one or two Christmas narratives, but five. And I hope that as you hear about them, you may find the Christmas you need.
- First, Luke, chapter’s one and two. This is the story of Jesus being born in the stable in Bethlehem. Their parents are residents of Nazareth, but a Roman census requires them to travel to Joseph’s ancestral city of Bethlehem. There is no room for them in the inn, and so they bed down in the stable. Before all of this, nine months before, an angel appears to Mary, and announces to her that she has been chosen to bear the Messiah, and she consents. Later she meets her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the baptist. John the Baptist leaps in her womb, and Mary replies with the Magnificat. This is the story of the shepherds, and the angels announcing to them the great joy of the Messiah’s birth. And so they run down to Bethlehem, see the new born child, and tell everyone about it.
- This is a joyful gospel. It is full of hope. It is optimistic. It is a gospel for the poor of the world, the simple laborers like Mary and Joseph, and for the shepherds. This is a story in which the Holy Spirit is present, inspiring Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary to speak forth hymns that have been sung for thousands of years: the Beneditus, part of the Hail Mary or Ave Maria, and the Magnificat. This is the Christmas story from Mary’s perspective – the woman’s narrative.
- This is a Christmas story for those who are marginalized, who need hope, who are looking for the Spirit of God transforming things. We see in Mary a servant of God, choosing to bear the Messiah, prefiguring the service her son would give.
- Next, there is the infancy story in the Gospel according to Matthew.
- It sounds both familiar and strange. There is no mention at first of Nazareth – Jesus’ parents appear to live in Bethlehem. An angel appears, but this time to Joseph. There is a potential scandal about Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, but the angel tells Joseph that the child has been conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- There is no Roman census, no Roman emperor, but there is King Herod, an evil man if there ever was one. Wise men, pagan astrologers come to him from the East – Persia, perhaps – looking for the newborn king of the Jews. They follow a star to Bethlehem, and offer gifts. Then Herod seeks to destroy the child, and massacres the innocent male children of the town. Joseph, warned in a dream, escapes to Egypt for a time, and eventually settles in hiding in Nazareth after Herod dies.
- This is a Christmas for those who find the world a dark place, where even the son of God needs protection from evil for a time. It is a gospel rooted in the Hebrew Bible, and as Moses came out of Egypt to deliver his people and give the Torah, in five books, so Jesus comes out of Egypt as a second Moses, and in five major discourses later in the gospel of Matthew, the first one being the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus claims the Torah and reinterprets it for God’s people.
- This is a gospel of continuity and transformation, rooted in ancient scriptures but pointing to the reception of the good news by non-Jews, like the Magi from Persia.
- Maybe you don’t like these stories. They are inconsistent, as many scholars point out, and they only complement each other if you force them.
- Maybe you just don’t like the whole Christmas thing. I know a lot of people who cannot stand it, don’t care for the virgin birth thing, and wish they didn’t have to mark it.
- Well, there is a gospel of Jesus Christ that knows nothing about the birth of Jesus, namely the Gospel according to Mark. It has no infancy narrative, no beginning with the birth of Jesus. It starts with the proclamation of John the Baptist, when Jesus is already an adult.
- Also, the early church did not always commemorate Jesus’ birth. Indeed, it appears in old documents only in the 3rd century, and did not become generally celebrated until the 4th. Even then there were arguments about when to do it – December 25th, or January 6th? It was all pretty arbitrary.
- So this is the Gospel for people who struggle with church doctrines, with the artificial nature of the church calendar, and with the whole Christmas thing. You don’t like Christmas? Fine, then skip it. You have my permission.
- Maybe, though, you want Christmas, but maybe a new one. Well, may I suggest that you look at the Revelation to John, the last book of the Bible, in Chapter 12. Let me read to you:
- “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule[a] all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.”
- A little psychedelic, eh? Here, in great allegorical language, is the story of Jesus on earth, but described as part of a cosmic battle between evil and good, between the powers of this earth and the power of God.
- Who is the woman? Is it Mary, or is it the representation of the people of God? Who is the dragon? The evil one, or is it the Rome, with its seven hills and 10 emperors?
- Well, I’ll let you puzzle over that. This is the Christmas story as a part of a cosmic narrative, which leads to a new heaven and a new earth. The birth of Jesus is an apocalyptic event, revealing the in-breaking of God in Christ into the world. For many of us in despair, surrendering to God and awaiting this unveiling of God’s power, this is the gospel we need. God is in control, evil will be defeated, and his kingdom will come on earth as in heaven.
- Then there is the gospel of the incarnation. This is the traditional gospel for Christmas Day, even though there is no birth in Bethlehem – no wise men and shepherds, no Emperor Tiberius or King Herod, no Mary and Joseph, no stable or flight into Egypt, and certainly no dragon.
- But it speaks the profound message that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.”
- It is the message that God has become human, the ultimate paradox, in which God seems to no longer be God. Divinity is poured out, emptied out into humanity.
- But the purpose of this message was summed up three centuries later by Athanasius of Alexandria, when he said, “God became human so that we humans might become divine.” This is not a kind of monism – we do not become one with God, and the absolute difference between creator and created is sustained – but as beings created in the image of God we discover, insofar as it is achievable by humans, to fulfill that being icons of the unseen God by being part of the Body of God, Jesus Christ.
- In Christ we see the real essence of God, that God is love, and becomes one of us so that we might become more like the divine in love. In Christ we are shown what it is to be truly human, in the image of God – a servant, a healer, a bearer of good news, a lover, one who gives himself in that love for us.
So, on this Christmas night, we celebrate the Mass of Christ. Our Christmas may be that of the story from Matthew and Luke, or maybe we don’t want any story at all. Perhaps we need the profound symbols of Revelation, calling us forward to the New Heaven and a New Jerusalem, or maybe we simply need to be transfigured by Christ and his dwelling with us. However you find Christmas, may you find what you need, arrive at the destination you seek, and receive the gift of what you desire. May the birth of Jesus herald a new birth in all of us of God’s love.
Thank you, Bruce, for the disciplined, consistent work you have done with the scriptures over Advent.
Pingback: Resources for Worship – Christmas Day 2020, the Year of the Great Pandemic | The Island Parson