Why on earth do we celebrate the birth of a baby to a non-descript couple who ended up in some tiny middle-eastern town? There were no records and as the family were non-entities it is amazing we have heard of it. Fine if it was the birth of a king or other leader, but not a carpenter’s son.
They must be very few who don’t have even a garbled grasp of the nativity story. Sometimes I wonder if all the tat of Christmas – Christmas on classic FM doing sentimental renderings of carols as I am listening to now, the face-palming nature of school nativities and so on. But the original significance is so often lost and is about as Christian as Saturnalia before Constantine bumped of his opponents.
So what do we make of the Christmas story? I will ignore all popular versions and only consider it from a Christian angle. I would like to sum it up as;
Christmas is the Creator becoming the created and re-creating
To do this I will consider two of the early parts of the Gospels; the account of going to Bethlehem and the shepherds in Luke 2 and the prologue of St John. They are so very different;
Luke gives it as a story for all ages
John gives a philosophical/theological reflection
Despite the way we think of Luke’s account of going to the inn and the visit of the shepherds, it is a very bald account and extreme in its terseness. We cannot read it without thinking of all the embellishments of 20 centuries; the donkey, the cows and sheep in the “manger”, the rustic log cabin, which was not the manger. You may as well add the scooter!
The section on going to Bethlehem is brief and raises that historical problem of Quirinius who became governor ten years later. To some, it reduces the Gospel to a myth, but many great historians have made worse mistakes, and all of us who have done historical research will have discovered examples. ( I collected mistakes in Darwin’s Autobiography!) Perhaps the best thing to do is what John Calvin said about Matthew on Chapter 27 verse “obviously Jeremiah’s name is put in error for Zechariah”. It’s only a problem if you think the bible must be inerrant which it isn’t. Anyway when they got to Bethlehem they struggled to find a place. If you are concerned about the manger and inn read https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/away-with-the-manger/ . This part of the account is almost overly ordinary and could have happened to anyone. Sadly Jesus and Mary were luckier than many refugees in the Middle East today.
The next section on shepherds is more of a problem, not that shepherds were with their flocks, but the visitation of angels. What do we make of angels? Most of us are non-plussed and others see angels at every angle! I am one of the non-plussed and reserve much judgement on this. Something happened and most importantly what is put in the angels’ mouths (if they have mouths) brings out what this mundane birth is all about;
To you this day is born in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Saviour, Messiah/Christ, Lord; three words to describe this little baby. The first two come out of the Jewish milieu and was what Jews looked for, though Jesus wasn’t what they expected or wanted. The third reflects the Roman empire where the emperor was LORD and is a swipe at Roman authority and why Christians had problems until Constantine came along in 310 AD. (To a Roman Caesar as LORD meant he was divine and Christian claims of Jesus as LORD cocked a snook at that. As Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan in 115AD, Christians worshipped Christ as a God.)
Luke takes the bare bones of the birth of Christ and writes it up in his unique way as the New Testament master of Greek and since then it has been re-written and embellished so many times that often the message Luke wished to put over is lost and over-painted by asses.
Stripped to its bare bones Luke began his Gospel with the birth of Jesus, who is Messiah/Christ and LORD. The rest is then developed as the account of Jesus’s life unfolds. As it is written in story form its message is more easily grasped than John’s rather philosophical meditation.
To compare Luke and John is like comparing the Parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10 vs 25-37) and the Sheep and Goats (Matt 25 vs31-46) and an erudite essay on altruism.
And so to John’s Prologue; in a sense it is very simple as the writer shows great economy in words, but it is what behind the words that matters.
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were created/came into being through him, and without him was nothing created that was created.
And later (vs14) And the word became flesh and dwelt among us…
The whole passage reads so differently to the rather semitic-style narrative of Luke. It is difficult not to see this as a later reflection by “John” using both Platonic ideas and those from the Greek-minded Jewish scholar from Alexandria – Philo and that John wrote like this to explain Jesus to a largely Greek audience,
Now leaving out much discussion and explanation which I ought to give, but do not have time or space to refer to all the books or include another 10,000 words here, the important thing is that John is first claiming the “the Word” is God and then in verse 14 saying that the Word became a human being – “the Word became flesh”.
Now here is the oddest claim of Christians, that God became a human being in Jesus, i.e. that the Creator became Created. If you find it hard to believe in God, belief in Jesus as God is even harder! To the two other great monotheisms – Islam and Judaism – this reflects a very wrong understanding of God, but be that as it is, it has been at the heart of Christianity for 2000 years, despite all the theological controversies about the nature of Jesus Christ. I think I will skip them and leave out all those controversies of Nicaea and Chalcedon and more recently of Kenoticism………….. I prefer Kenoticism which says that in Jesus God emptied out his God-attributes to become weak and feeble like humans. (The word derives from the greek to empty out. See Phillipians 2 vs 6-8 and vs1-5 on how a Christian should be).
On this Luke and John are at one, this man Jesus is the Messiah and LORD and the Word and thus both human and divine. But they do not spell it out what it actually means or how it is the case. I almost get the impression they knew they didn’t fully understand but the one thing they did fully understand was the need to recognise Jesus as such and mold one’s life accordingly. This John alludes to this in vs 12 “to those who received him, he gave them authority to be sons of God” and in vs 4 “In him was life”.
The life of Jesus is of no interest in itself, except historically, but is in its result;
The life of Jesus leads to life in Jesus
That can sound trite, and ,sadly, often is! However that is the core challenge of the Christian faith as belief about Christ must lead to a life behaving like Christ. No amount of doctrine is of value IF it does not show in the life of a Christian. Now I can hear some shrieking “Christians are hypocrites, blah, blah ,blah.” That is absolutely true up to a point. I know too much church history, the faults of Christians …. and my own faults not to be able to contradict this. BUT, think of the many who have tried to live a life in Christ (however inconsistently) over the centuries. It is no accident that many of our hospitals have a Christian foundation, or that many who led the battle against slavery in the 1800s were Christians (but also included the Darwins) and most recently many Food Banks are run by churches. (Food Banks illustrate things wrong in our society.) All these are examples of a life in Christ
At Christmas the Creator becomes the created to enable us, as the created, to live for the creation and all that is in it, animal (including naked apes), vegetable or mineral (and gases and liquids too!).
At Easter the created is re-created for a new creation – I think I will leave that for a few months………….