I find the over sentimental religious portrayal coupled with the over commercialisation and Coca-Cola’isation of the Christmas story exhausting. It saps the life out of me. I must admit that there are times when I have become so worn out of it all I yearn and hanker for a quieter, less fussy and busy, less stupidly expensive Christmas.
Yet this is my conviction: Without throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater of faff and plastic tackiness, I do believe it is vitally important to grasp afresh the radical story of the birth of Jesus so that we can try to communicate it in a way others too can grasp it and have their lives changed by the core message.
Despite the Christmas celebrations originating from pagan festivals we have something powerful to proclaim. In this article I will present some very good reasons why we should still announce from the roof tops the most radical life changing story of the most outrageously generous gift that this world has been graced with. I believe the rawness of the Christmas story needs to be ours today and even though we know Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th and indeed wasn’t born at winter time at all the recordings of His birth found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke reveal the most powerful story for the time they were written and for our time now.
Think about it for a moment:
The heart of the Christmas story is God becoming a person like you and me, to rescue us and provide a way to become ‘right’ with himself.
Before I unpack some of this good news, did you even know that the Christmas story has pagan origins? I ask this as I meet many people who are confused by the whole thing, some even thinking it’s a celebration of the birth of Santa! Seriously.
Due to its pagan roots, celebrating Christmas was made illegal in England by an Act of Parliament in 1644 by Cromwell. The traditional Christmas foods were condemned and you could get hung drawn and quartered for cooking up pigs in blankets with Turkey and stuffing! People really were killed for celebrating Christmas over 300 years ago. Harsh.
The date of December 25th probably originated with the ancient “birthday” of the son-god, Mithra, a pagan deity whose religious influence became widespread in the Roman Empire during the first few centuries A.D. Mithra was related to the Semitic sun-god, Shamash, and his worship spread throughout Asia to Europe where he was called Deus Sol Invictus Mithras. Rome was well-known for absorbing the pagan religions and rituals of its widespread empire. As such, Rome converted this pagan legacy to a celebration of the god, Saturn, and the rebirth of the sun god during the winter solstice period.
The winter holiday became known as Saturnalia and began the week prior to December 25th. The festival was characterized by gift-giving, feasting, singing and debauchery, as the priests of Saturn carried wreaths of evergreen boughs in procession throughout the Roman temples. Sounds strangely familiar… apart from the priests of Saturn bit.
Variations of this pagan holiday flourished throughout the first few centuries after Jesus Christ, but it probably wasn’t until 336 AD that Emperor Constantine officially converted this pagan tradition into the “Christian” holiday of Christmas.
“The Roman birthday of the sun became the Christian birthday of the Son.”
In his commentary of Matthew, Tom Wright argues that Jesus was born at a time of great turmoil and darkness and this is how God’s rescue plan works best. That’s good news for us today. When the people of God were in their darkest hour, Emmanuel came to be with them. We are, I believe, in a time when we desperately need hope. I’m not one to paint a pictures of doom and gloom, but people desperately need Jesus. So dark and terrible was the time of Jesus’ birth that the most powerful man around Israel killed a whole village of babies to try and get rid of him. From his birth as King, Jesus’ very life was a threat to people.
Wright argues that ‘The shadow of the cross falls over the story from this moment on. Jesus is born with a price on his head. Plots are hatched; angels warn Joseph; they only just escape Bethlehem in time… “Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refuge with a price on his head.” (Wright p.14)
“Jesus is born in the deepest darkness. In the middle of the night at the winter solstice. This isn’t historical time, not a historical fact about the date of Jesus’ birth but parabolic time, metaphorical time, sacred time, symbolic time. The symbolism is perfect…In the middle of the night, on the longest night of the year, the time of deepest darkness, Jesus is born.”
The metaphorical story of the light of the world born into darkness is a powerful picture. However, the story appears to also be one that subverted the dominant culture in which it was written. We know that through the gospels Jesus told parables that were subversive and challenged the dominant consciousness of the 1st Century world. His followers would have learnt from him how to tell parables and revolutionary stories and the birth ones are full of radical connotations for the occupied land in which they are written from. For example:
- Jesus is declared to be King of the Jews. That title was originally Herod the Great’s. Matthew shows Herod like Pharaoh (a Moses theme is seen throughout Matthew) and Herod being the Lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality.
- “The Son of God, Lord Saviour of the world and the one who brings peace on earth.” Within Roman Imperial Theology the emperor Ceaser was all of these. Luke declares that status and these titles belong to Jesus. He, not the emperor is the embodiment of God’s will for the earth.
- “The Light of the world” is a title we are very familiar as being Jesus’. However, the emperor was called son of Apollo, the god of light and reason.
Furthermore, as well as the birth stories packing a punch against the rulers and authorities of Rome the accounts in Luke and Matthew of the birth of Jesus are ‘Parabolic Overtures’ giving us clues as to what the whole gospel will be about. Borg and Crossan argue that seeing this overture is very important for us to understand: “Get it, and you get everything, miss it and you miss it all.”(p.53)
Matthew’s opening chapters are very similar to the opening chapters of Exodus. The front page newspaper headline for both stories could read:
‘Evil ruler slaughters male infants. Predestined child escapes!’
Matthew includes five (important number in the overture) dreams that contain direction and divine intervention. Four of the dreams are for Joseph (1.20, 2.13, 2.19-20, 2.22) and one for the Magi (2.12) Matthew really has a thing for fives and he uses the title Messiah five times for Jesus in the nativity story and mentions Bethlehem five times.
There are also five prophetic fulfillment’s that he writes about in connection to Jesus:
- Mary’s virginal conception. ( Isaiah 7.14)
- The birthplace of the Messiah (2 Samuel 5.2)
- The departure of the family to Egypt. (Hosea 11.1)
- Herod’s Infanticide at Bethlehem ( Jeremiah 31.15)
- About Nazareth (2.23- but unknown citation from the O.T)
The parallel between Jesus and Moses continues. Think about the Sermon on the Mount.
‘It is actually, for Matthew, the new Moses giving a new law from a new Mt.Sinai. It would be better to call it the “New law from the New Mountain…” (Borg and Crossan p.44)
What about Lukes account? What themes are bedded into the nativity story that you find throughout the gospel? Borg and Crossan argue that there are 3 main themes to this Overture: Women, the marginalised and the Holy Spirit. Luke always balances a reference to a man with one to a woman. If Matthews’s central figure in the Christmas story is Joseph, with Luke it is very clearly Mary’s story.
Think about the other characters in the overture: Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. This theme is picked up in the unique stories found in Luke that Mark and Matthew don’t. Luke has far more unique stories about woman than the other synoptic gospels, for example:
- The mother’s only son in Nain (Luke 7-11-16)
- The woman whose sins are forgiven her (Luke 7.26-50)
- Martha and Mary who host Jesus (Luke 11.27-28)
- The crippled woman in the synagogue (Luke 13.10-16)
- The woman with the lost coin (Luke 15.4-7)
- The insistent widow (Luke 18.1-8)
Luke 8.1-3 which is an oft overlooked scripture reveals a huge amount as to how Jesus was able to do what he did through his band of sisters.
The marginalised are also in the overture and they are represented by the shepherds who would have been the lowest of the low in the social order of the 1st century culture. They would have had to live among the sheep, move and deal with dead carcasses and fight off wild animals. Yet, it was to this group that the angels first proclaim the good news! ‘In a Jewish book called the Mishna, familiar in the first century, buying food and clothing from shepherds was forbidden, because they were probably stolen goods! By Jesus’ time, they were held in such low esteem that they weren’t allowed to give court testimony in judicial or civil cases; they were judged to be utterly untrustworthy!
“Shepherds were despised. They were considered ceremonially ‘unclean’ and so banned from entering various homes, and especially the courts of the Jerusalem temple.” (Evangelical Times https://www.evangelical-times.org/20486/learning-from-the-shepherds/)
The third emphasis is how Luke so liberally refers to the Holy Spirit. I love it! See 1.35, 1.41, 1.67, 2.25-27 for the examples. This emphasise is seen throughout the gospel and the third person of the Trinity is center stage in many of the stories we are so used to. He is promised to everyone (3.16) He descends upon Jesus when he is baptised (3.22) Jesus is filled with him and is led by him into the wilderness. (4.1) He rests upon Jesus (4.14).
The Christmas story is good news for all. The rejected, the dis-empowered, the weak. It’s a story of great power coming to earth. The Holy Spirit liberally given and paving the way for a New Kingdom. Indeed, the very story is set in the context of occupation as the Kingdom of Rome ruled over Judea. When the gospels declare a new Kingdom and a new King, who will rule and reign on the earth, it’s in direct competition to the existing kingdom which the story is set.
Both kingdoms claimed that they were the last of the Kingdoms on the earth. In Daniel there is a description of 4 mighty kingdoms: Babylonian, Medean, Persian and Macedonian with the Roman Kingdom being believed to be the last and greatest.
‘Rome inherited from Greece the idea that world history would involve five great ages or kingdoms. The fifth kingdom would be the last climatic kingdom of the whole world.’ (Borg and Crossan p. 59)
The new Kingdom of the Reign and Rule of God shown through Jesus came into a context of a Roman military power of force and violence, economic power that controlled labour and production, political power with controlled organisation and institution and ideological power which controlled meaning and religion for life. Tom Wright writes: ‘The gospel of Jesus the Messiah was born, then, in a land and at a time of trouble, tension, violence and fear.’
However, the timing of the Kingdom of heaven coming to earth couldn’t have been better! Rome was intent on taking over the world by force. Jesus brought a new kingdom of peace for this world that originated from heaven with true peace, freely chosen not enforced. This is in direct contrast to the peace of the Roman empire which it accomplished with an iron hand. The Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) guaranteed that people could live and travel within the Roman Empire in relative safety but was accomplished through annihilation of entire towns and villages if they didn’t comply.
Christmas is a time to celebrate true peace for this world.
This peace is brought through God coming to us. Matthew reveals that Jesus’ name shall also be Emmanuel. ‘God with us.’ This is a prophetic fulfillment from Isaiah and shows us that Jesus is God. This isn’t about God observing the mess and destruction of the world from afar but entering into the pain and suffering. ‘Carne’ means flesh or meat, incarnation refers to God becoming flesh. Right with us.
Before the BBC sacked the presenter Jeremy Clarkson for allegedly attacking a producer, he would often refer to ‘Baby Jesus’ on Top Gear in a comical catch phrase way. For many people Jesus remains a baby. Born meek and mild, ‘no crying he makes.’ The glowing squeaky clean Jesus born in a sterile manger is a helpless irrelevant Jesus.
Here’s a reminder of the power of the Christmas story: The baby Jesus is also the Lord Jesus who is all powerful and whose name is the highest name of all. Baby Jesus is also the eternal Christ. In Carrin’s book ‘Spirit-Empowered Theology he writes this about Mary:
‘…she did not realize that the greatest event of all creation was soon to be performed in her own body. Heaven and earth would lock together in her womb.’ (p.176)
He goes on to write:
‘God would remain fully God and also become fully human, and then submit himself to sin’s painful consequence. Through this act of Jesus’ incarnation, God’s plan to rescue humanity would be finalised.’
Scripture explains it like this: The Father “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5.21.)
I hope and pray this Christmas that the symbolism and power of the Christmas story would impact you afresh. That you may be filled anew with a desire to bring the message of the light of the world, born into the darkest time, born for us today. May the power of the Holy spirit rest upon you as you announce afresh the good news that God has come to us and rescues us. Amen.
Cahrles Carrin, Spirit Empowered Theology, Chosen, 2017
J.John (editor) Proclaiming Christmas- 40 Timeless Talks and Sermons, Philo Trust 2012
Marcus Borg and John Crossan, The first Christmas, SPCK 2008
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew, IVP 2000
Peter K Stevenson and Stephen I Wright, Preaching the Incarnation, Westminsiter John Knox Press, 2010
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everone Part 1, SPCK, 2002