We know Christmas is coming because the pohutukawa are beginning to bloom, schools have finished or are finishing, and somewhat strange ‘seasonal’ decorations are adorning shopping precincts. At our Remuera local shops the strange has appeared in the form of large stuffed toys. They are meant to be reindeer - reindeer who like climbing street lamps.
All this is rather far removed from a baby born in a Bethlehem manger and receiving shepherds and astrologers as guests. And, as those of us who are familiar with biblical historical inquiry, this Bethlehem scenario itself is far removed from the origins of Jesus. Christmas has always been evolving.
I remember when John Meir in 1991 wrote the first of his volumes “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the historical Jesus” he posited that like other historical figures in the ancient Mediterranean world little can be said about Jesus’ birth with any certainty. However he went on to say that it was highly probable that somewhere around the end of the reign of Herod the Great (7-4 BCE) a Jew called Yeshua (Jesus) was born, probably in Nazareth, to a woman called Miryam (Mary). That’s still pretty much the extent of historical truth about Jesus’ birth.
Angels, shepherds, a star, astrologers, Joseph, and the rest of the cast are all part of a theological overture introducing the ministry of the adult Jesus. That is not to say there isn’t ‘truth’ in those overture stories – theological ‘truth’ and historical ‘truth’ are not the same thing. Similarly claims about virginal conception, or illegitimacy, are historically impossible to sustain.
The overture – what are usually called the infancy narratives - were probably the last part added to the gospels of Matthew and Luke i.e. towards the end of the 1st and into the early 2nd century. These infancy narratives were in turn trying to elaborate upon earlier theology. Let me explain:
After Jesus’ death his followers became convinced of one central truth [theological not historical truth]: that in Jesus they had experienced something of the essence of God. That’s when Christmas began! This theology, later called the incarnation, Paul expressed in Philippians 2 [written in the 50s]:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Putting aside some of the theological problems with this quote – like God having a form – Paul is asserting the then controversial view that God’s representative or ‘Son’ is not the person with the most political power, but this nobody Jesus who was in the ‘form of a slave’. Jesus, not Caesar, was the Son of God. And the ‘form of a slave’ is a reference to the crucifixion [not the nativity]; for it was, according to Paul, at Calvary when God made Jesus his Son.
Mark, writing some 20 years after Paul, had God making Jesus his Son at his baptism by John. Matthew and Luke, writing some 50 years after Paul, introduced the idea that Jesus became God’s Son when Mary conceived. John’s Gospel, written last, has the Sonship of Jesus happening at the beginning of time.
The title ‘Son of God’ had been used a number of times in the Hebrew Bible – it was used of an ideal ruler [like David], or of Israel as a whole [sons and daughters of God]. But in the 1st century Caesar claimed that he was the Son of God; and the early Jesus movement was bravely challenging that.
My point is again that Christmas was evolving. The first Christmas happened in the lived experience of Jesus’ followers and their reflections on that after his death. Christmas then showed up in the political theology of Paul. Later it showed up in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Mark. Then later it showed in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, and the ‘born of a virgin’ myth. Then later still in the high Christology of the Fourth Gospel [John’s].
But, frankly, this is pretty boring to talk about. Give me a good story any day. Like three Persian astrologers, gentiles of a heathen religion, following a star. Or a bunch of lowlife shepherds being visited by a choir of angels singing: “Jesus, Jesus he’s our man – he can kick Caesar’s butt if anyone can”. Give me allusions to Moses [‘Joseph’, escape into Egypt, massacre of the infants], or to David [‘shepherds’, ‘Son of God’], or references to the marginalized [like a pregnant unmarried woman [Mary], or a genealogy that includes a prostitute [Rahab] and a foreigner [Ruth].] These stories are interesting, engaging, and indicative of the radical ministry of the adult Jesus.
Over the centuries since the first nativity story-tellers, hymn-writers, theologians, cooks, decorators, and all manner of people have re-created Christmas and woven it into their time and culture. So St Nicholas came along, and Remuera reindeer, and Christmas trees, and carol-singing, and Christmas dinners.
At one time in Britain goose was considered the Christmas dish or, amongst the royals, swan. Poorer folk ate rabbit. In New Zealand a roast chicken was once considered a special Christmas meal. Today many younger Kiwis have no appetite for traditional Christmas cake. Alexa told me of a Kiwi Christmas dessert of brandy marinated dried fruit folded into ice-cream and then re-frozen.
As the evolving Christmas traditions interface with our Kiwi culture some things of yesteryear will be left behind and other things will endure.
I see the strong desire for families and whanau to come together at Christmas enduring. Indeed for many this is the highpoint: having and making time to meet up with extended family and friends.
And this too is why Christmas can be so painful when death, distance, or disagreements prevent families being together. Christmas is full of memories and memory-making, both the good and not-so-good.
At Christmas helping agencies and faith groups work overtime supporting those in our community who are suffering, whether that help be through telephone calls or counselling or practical support. For many of us Christmas is both a time to come together and try to support those most in need. Coming together and supporting others go hand in hand. Isn’t this what is at the heart of the understanding of community that evolved in the early Jesus movement?
Today I want to acknowledge and offer my love to those in our congregation for whom Christmas is a painful time of remembering those who have died, remembering those far away, or remembering those with whom we aren’t or can’t be reconciled.
Secondly, I see the Christmas feast enduring. As families and whanau gathering at Christmas symbolizes our belief in the value of togetherness, so a Christmas feast symbolizes our belief in the value of everyone having enough to eat. Many family Christmas meals work on the principles of everyone bringing something and there always being room for one more. The principles of whanaungatanga and manaakitanga are in the ascendancy. Isn’t this what is at the heart of the biblical feeding miracles?
Similarly community and religious groups try to help out, particularly at Christmas, to assist families and individuals with food. The Auckland City Mission holds a magnificent Christmas lunch, feeding over 2500 people, and assisted by 700 volunteers. Other groups, religious or not, in suburbs and towns around the country, do something similar – albeit smaller. Food banks, like the one Presbyterian Support Northern runs, work overtime.
Lastly I see Christmas as a time of receiving gifts and, if able, giving gifts, enduring. Although the mythology of Santa can be a mixed blessing, at heart it is about generosity. The Santa myth encourages us to not only give, but also to think of ourselves as worthy of a gift. So everyone, rich or poor, young or old, in prison or out, should receive a little something. Gift-giving symbolizes our belief in the values of self-worth, compassion, and generosity. Isn’t this what is at the heart of Jesus’ transformative love told about in many of the parables and writ large in how he lived?
Culture and customs, religious beliefs and practices can all change given time. What is important is to be clear about what we hope will endure. I think the values of coming together, supporting others, having ample to eat, and giving generously, resonate with our Christian heritage. In those values the love of Christ is incarnated, comes into our midst at Christmas.