Before you read the Bible readings, it is important to understand their context. The Isaiah reading is not, as is commonly thought, a foretelling of Jesus’ birth. The prophet was giving hope to the people of his time; a dispirited people in exile in Babylon over 500 years before Jesus. The fact that it sounds to us as if it refers to Jesus is due to the tendency for New Testament writers to create stories that referred back to the Hebrew Scriptures, so as to create the impression that prophecy was fulfilled.
The Luke reading this morning should be understood as ‘story’ rather than history. There are Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew (none in John or Mark), and, read side by side, one realises that they are nothing alike. Whilst each has a baby and his parents, this is the only similarity. As the familiar Christmas story evolved to its present state, the two biblical narratives were conflated, and a number of aspects were added that are not present in either. In fact, the Christmas passages were likely later additions to the gospels, as the earliest versions of Matthew and Luke have no nativity stories, so neither one is likely to contain much history. This does not take anything away from their value, but it suggests that, as well as noting what the stories tell us about Jesus, we should look at them as myths, that is, inner-world stories that conveys timeless truths about what it means to be human.
Read Isaiah 9:2-7 & Luke 2:8-20
What can I, as a preacher, add to this familiar story that will bring a glimmer of new light into the old mix of Christmas plans, customs and, of course, the familiar Christmas story to which we listen each year? How can we see the unexpected in Christmas? How can we feel the excitement that I think the Christmas story deserves.
On the other major feast days of the church year, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, et al, you have heard me speak of the need to understand them, not primarily as observances of past occurrences in history, but of potential current events in the lives of every person. To realise this about Christmas should be enough to give you goosebumps.
If we are to get those goosebumps, we will find them in the question: What does the Christmas story have to do with me? What makes it more than just a story of the birth of one child in one place and one time? Or put another way: In what ways can I be a person through whom something divinely creative, sustaining, transformational and unexpected enters these times?
In many churches and schools around the nation at this time of year, you may see a nativity scene like the one before you. Note the diversity of humanity gathered around the manger: ragged and poor shepherds, elegant and wealthy wisemen. In terms of the Jewish religion, shepherds were the unclean dregs of society and the wisemen were gentiles, pagans; both groups outside the possibility of salvation from a Jewish point of view.
So what have we got? The so-called ‘unrighteous’ outnumber the ‘righteous’ in Jesus’ company. Such diversity within a community would have been a scandal in Israel, and certainly would have been unexpected. I hope the Christmas story may still bring such scandal and surprise.
In his first Christmas message after becoming National President of the Uniting Church in Australia, the Revd Alistair Macrae said:
“I wonder how those who favour harsh policies toward desperate people seeking haven and hope in this country will celebrate Christmas this year. For their sake, I hope they don’t listen to the story at the heart of the season. They might choke on their turkey and gag on their champagne!
“With a worrying sense of déjà vu, I have been aware of a disturbing juxtaposition of images. The Holy Family being turned away from the inn is overlaid with child-bearing mothers in boats confronted with gun-bearing navy vessels. The image of a mother and child surrounded by animals and shepherds merges with images of a fearful mother with a newborn infant in a detention centre in Indonesia, Nauru or Manus Island. The Holy Family fleeing to Egypt seeking asylum from terror, blends with images of hundreds of desperate people being turned away from our abundant shores” .
The Pope recently warned of the decreasing relevance of Christianity in western society. Indeed, not everyone hears or reads a so-called ‘religious’ dimension to Christmas. The Melbourne Age newspaper conducted a poll of readers a few years ago concerning the religious significance of Christmas, and the results are interesting to say the least:
- 41% said the religious significance was decreasing in relevance;
- 47% said its religious meaning was now almost entirely lost amid the secular celebrations,
That’s 88% of people who either question or dismiss the relevance of Christmas. Obviously, Christmas fails to give them goosebumps, but could it be that people are looking in the wrong place for relevance? Instead of cute nativity scenes and decorations in shop windows, perhaps the real relevance of Christmas is found today on Nauru and Manus Island.
Tom Harpur, author of The Pagan Christ, says the deeper story – the real story – has been so “twisted out of shape, and so layered over with trite or fraudulent wrappings, that the real gift is rarely ever envisioned, let alone observed and gratefully received. Is there, was there ever, some precious thing of matchless beauty, power and grace at the very heart of Christmas; something with flaming potency to transform or lives, our world?”
If we haven’t considered similar questions before today, then today is the time to start! You have heard me use the word “subversive” throughout the past weeks in reference to Christianity, for the work of Jesus and his true followers was, and is, radical change; first, the radical change of people, and through them, the radical change of our world; the kind of radical change that should give us all goosebumps?
If we are to grasp the reality of the Christmas story, it is important not to read or hear it too narrowly, too religiously; rather to feel its texture and discern its breadth, for it is indeed the bearer of many messages. In the expected language of the ‘old-time’ religion, Christmas is about God out there coming to us, to dwell with us and within us. And this is so very true, but it is little more than a nice sentiment unless this kind of Christmas is still happening. For me the Christmas story exploded in relevance when I came to understand it as myth, i.e. a story that is taking place, even at this very moment, in me.
We work with myths as one works with a dream, i.e. each aspect is regarded as a symbol pointing to something in the human psyche. So beneath the story of the virgin who gives birth to a baby in a manger, there is a tale that shows us a path to discover a broader dimension for our ordinary humanity.
The Christmas story is an ongoing adventure in our souls. Possibly at this very moment, a Divine impregnation is about to emerge in the birth of something radically new in your life. In order to grow to maturity, it will need nurturing motherly help, symbolised by Mary, and the protection of a Joseph against the murderous intent of those Herod aspects of your psyche that will resist change. Each of the other various symbols in the story add to the description: the angels, shepherds, wisemen, star, stable, busy inn, etc, but together they tell a story that will give you goosebumps when you realise that this is not just a story of one person who lived a couple millennia ago, but it is your story and it is now.
I leave you with the words of the Rev. Ian Lawton from his sermon on the Star of Bethlehem:
“What meaning will you give Christmas this year? Will you sneer like King Herod, and live with cynicism at every great achievement or will you live with humble curiosity? You don’t have to believe unbelievable things, or leave your brain at the church door when you enter. You don’t have to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin in a scene accompanied by supernatural miracles. You don’t have to imagine that Christmas is a celebration of the beginning of an exclusive religion where some people are saved and others damned. Just live with humble curiosity and open acceptance that Christmas is about incarnation – the divine with us and in us. Divine light lives in each and every person.
“This Christmas, when you have the need for new hope or encouragement, look to one of the 1.5 trillion stars visible to you, and let its immensity was over you. Above you are the stars. Beneath you is the earth. Within you is the light of life. Like the stars may your love be constant. Like the earth, may your life be grounded. Like the light within, may your spirit shine.”
It is important not to read or hear the Christmas story too narrowly or too literally. So this Christmas, this day, be moved by generosity, encouraged by hope, uplifted by love. Celebrate both the birth and the tinsel, but more than all else, be aware of the goose-bump experiences of life! The Christmas story is the story of our human family. “God dwells in every heart. The joy of Christmas means awakening to this fact”.