Wonder what they’re celebrating? Hint: it isn’t Jesus’ birthday…because, well, timeline.
So, full disclosure: I was going to title this post “Jesus is Not the Reason for the Season,” but that was deemed too provocative…
Growing up we’d sometimes have a “come to Jesus” meeting amongst the family. It was a moment to speak some honest truths that were hard to swallow. It was never a moment to degrade or deride, but rather to just say some honest things that set the ground for going forward.
And I think, Beloved, that maybe we need to have a “come to Jesus” about Christmas.
And I think maybe we need to have this conversation because, well, I’m noticing some strident things coming from certain circles about Christmas, the nativity, and the whole season that are really just, well, inaccurate.
And, I think, probably a bit harmful in the long run.
Because here’s the thing: while your Christmas might be about Jesus…he is the reason for your season, and maybe my season…we have to be honest about the fact that it certainly didn’t start that way.
Humans, since we’ve been recording these types of things, have always celebrated some sort of festival of light at the solstice. It’s a need within us for reassurance that shadows will not last forever.
We’re, when we’re honest, scared of the night.
And so our ancient mothers and fathers who lived in the north, when the ground became too hard to plow, took a wheel off of their cart, brought it inside, decorated it with greenery and candles, and lit one every night, trying to coax the sun back from its hiding place.
This became, over time, our Advent wreath. It became a Christian symbol, but it didn’t start that way. And it’s OK that it didn’t! I think it’s better that it didn’t…because it makes it all so much more universal.
And that yule log that will adorn your Christmas table is a pagan symbol of the huge burning logs that were lit on the solstice, the shortest day, to last through the shadows. It’s got holly and ivy on it, the masculine (prickly holly) and the feminine (flowing ivy) to weave together our humanity into the rhythm of the world’s seasons.
And that tree in your living room was a stolen tradition from pagans who used to decorate the trees, making them beautiful (and, sadly, Martin Luther did not first put candles on them, as the legend goes) to counter the cold, frozen days of winter. Fertility reminders were important in the fallow days, after all. The sun would come back. The earth would give crops again. Humans would continue to thrive. The evergreen incorporated all of this symbolism and more.
Early Christians took these fertility symbols and started using them to tell Biblical stories, by the way.
That Christmas tree didn’t stand near the nativity in the beginning, but for early Christians it stood for, well, the beginning! They’d replay Adam and Eve plays using those evergreen trees, hiding apples in the branches to retell Genesis 1 and 2.
It’s OK that we didn’t invent it, Beloved. Let’s not pretend we did.
But now for the piece that gets me the most emails, and some recent “unfollows” on social media: the birth narratives in the Gospels.
Here’s the truth:
Mark, it looks like, thought Jesus was born in Nazareth. He didn’t care much about where he was born, or at least care enough to write about it, so in Mark, Jesus comes wandering out of Nazareth.
John, likewise, doesn’t care where Jesus was born, but just about who Jesus is. His birth narrative is cosmic, and John 1 is a retelling of Genesis 1 with Christ at the center. It’s beautiful, poetic, and has a point.
Matthew and Luke are the ones who tell nativity stories. And why? Well, if you read them you’ll find out.
Matthew needs you to know that the Jesus of the Gospels (of the Gospel of Mark, specifically) is the same Messiah told about in the Hebrew scriptures. So he goes to great lengths, jumping over many hurdles, to make sure that the Jesus you read about in Matthew harkens back to the depictions of the Messiah found in bits and pieces throughout the Hebrew texts.
He puts him in Bethlehem because that fulfills the prophecy. (Micah 5:2)
Joseph, his father, is a dreamer, which is intended to echo that Joseph-the-dreamer in Genesis. In dreams he learns of Jesus’ birth. In dreams he learns to flee to Egypt when Herod goes on his rampage, which should remind you, by the way, of Pharaoh trying to kill all the newborns in Egypt, with Moses, that other messianic figure in Genesis, surviving.
Do you see? Matthew is replaying the story for a new generation of the faithful.
And Egypt is important because ancient prophecy noted that, “out of Egypt will come (God’s) son…” (Hosea 11:1) So Matthew had to get them there. This all worked out nicely.
Luke, too, places Jesus in Bethlehem, much for the same reason. But unlike Matthew, Luke has the issue of getting them to Bethlehem, because his Gospel opens the scene with them in Nazareth…probably because Mark starts there.
So the Holy Family is from Nazareth. But how to get them to Bethlehem? Ah, yes, we’ll have a census happen, which will connect them to Bethlehem and the ancient prophecy.
Except that, in extra-Biblical records we can’t find any census happening around that time. There is one that happens later, it turns out. And I guess it’s possible that the whole timeline is wrong…but that’s not the point, friend.
I’ll repeat that: the timeline is not the point. Literalism is not the point for these birth narratives. The point is painting a Divine picture for you.
So Luke gets them to Bethlehem, and Jesus was born.
And all of those other questions on whether he was born in a “stable” or a “cave” or even the first floor of a house are interesting and fun ponderings but ultimately don’t matter.
Because it only really happens that way in Luke, and…yeah, I’m going to say it…probably didn’t happen that way at all.
Because that’s not the point.
For Luke the point comes a moment after the birth: with the angels and the shepherds. Luke, the Gospel that pays the most attention to the marginalized and the disenfranchised, has the birth of the Messiah being made known not to kings in palaces or the rich elite, but to the shepherds, who weren’t even allowed to testify in the courts of the day because they were considered lying scoundrels.
This is lovely symmetry with the end of Mark’s Gospel where the only people who see the resurrection of Jesus are the women who…wait for it…weren’t even allowed to testify in the courts of the day.
So between Mark and Luke you see that the most important book ends of Jesus’ life and ministry are seen only by people who no one should believe.
And that, Beloved, is the point: Luke wants to reinforce the idea that the poor, the marginalized, and the one you least expect is the one God bestows grace upon grace toward.
Now, why bother saying any of this?
I love nativity scenes. I have many of them. I have an icon of the nativity right in front of me at the moment, actually. It’s beautiful and meaningful and truthful in so many ways.
But it’s not fact. It didn’t happen that way.
And it doesn’t have to have happened that way. Because that’s not the point.
Matthew’s point is not that literal Magi traveled across continents to visit Jesus, but rather that God’s entrance into our space and time had a global impact. And those gifts? They were not real gifts, but symbols of his life, death, and resurrection. Gold, for the treasure that he was. Frankincense, for the offering to humanity that he would become. Myrrh, because he’s going to die…and that’s what you wrap people in when they die.
These are not actual gifts they gave, but rather symbolized the gift the Christ is.
And Luke’s point is not that an actual stable, or even actual angels, appeared on the scene, but rather that the people you didn’t expect would be the ones to play a pivotal role in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah.
People like you.
And, back to the season at hand…
None of this would have happened in December, anyway. You don’t put sheep out to pasture in December, Beloved. You do that in June. So even if Luke was trying to relate reality, we’re way off on our seasons in this era.
No, our date for the Nativity of Christ is another stolen piece that we took from those non-Christians who were dancing around bonfires at the solstice. They were already celebrating, so the church changed it from the “festival of the undying sun” to the “nativity of the undying son.”
And it wasn’t even a major holiday for ancient Christians! Pentecost and Easter were the two big festivals for the first church. That first church would probably be appalled and confused as to why we’re bothering with this December holiday, anyway. Maybe, if we want to keep tradition, we should abandon Christmas altogether as a Christian holiday and re-ignite a passion for Pentecost (see what I did there?).
And you know what?
Most pastors know this stuff…at least if they’ve had an education that moved past Biblical proof-texting or a glorified Sunday School (and let’s be honest: too much that passes for “seminary education” these days is a glorified Sunday School).
We know this stuff, but we don’t talk about it because, I think, we’re afraid of being caught up in culture wars. Or we don’t want to deal with the emails that come from speaking truth into a season that has so many tendrils upon our hearts. Or we don’t have the time, honestly, because it’s already so busy…
But here’s my larger point with all this: Jesus can be the reason for your season. That’s awesome, and meaningful, and beautiful.
But let’s not pretend that Jesus was always the reason for celebrating at this time of year.
Christianity took the season and made it something for themselves, which we’re wont to do, and that’s OK.
And that argument on whether Jesus was born in a cave, a stable, a house, an RV? Don’t spend too much time thinking about it all, because that’s not the point.
And this is why I think it’s harmful not to share some of this info with the church: you might miss the forest for the trees. You might miss the point of it all.
The point is that God’s advent on the scene shook everything from floor to rafter (Matthew), that God would invite the least-of-these into the center of the Divine drama (Luke), that the baptism of Jesus would be his second birth into ministry (Mark), and that the Christ is woven into all creation (John).
The rest, as we say in the South, is just lipstick and rouge, ya’ll.
And I get that this all might be an inconvenient truth. But in this season of beauty and wonder and awe, it’s OK to lift up scenes and stories that have so much embellishment!
In other words, the stories are true, even if they’re not factual.
And it’s only inconvenient if you need them to be factual to see their truth.