‘The Christmas Story Re-visited’
Thursday 14th November 2019
The Nativity Story is much more than a charming tale for children at Christmas. In the words of Adrian Alker, it is a tale that reminds adults that light can overcome darkness, peace can overcome conflict, humility can overcome power, and life is best founded on love, joy and goodwill.
Everybody knows the story of the birth of Jesus - or at least they did once upon a time. See Luke, Chapter 2: vs 1-12.
Luke tells us that Joseph, who lived in Nazareth, had to go to Bethlehem. He was of the house and line of David, and Bethlehem was David’s town: a place where it was prophesied that a future ‘Messiah’ would be born.
Luke says that “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph”, but the New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition says that Mary and Joseph would have already been married, and the reference to Mary being “pledged to be married” should be interpreted as indicating that the “marriage was not yet consummated”.
An early Christian tradition, apparently, was that Jesus was born in a cave, but Luke indicates that the baby Jesus was placed in a “manger”, which implies a cattle-shed or a stable. Luke also tells us that there was no room in the “inn”: and he is emphasising that Jesus was born in very humble circumstances.
Empathy with ordinary people is also evoked when the news of Jesus’ birth is first announced to “shepherds”, rather than to important people, like a king, a governor, or to chief priests at the Temple.
In verse 10, the shepherds are informed by angels the of “good news” for “all” of the birth of a “Saviour”, who is “Christ the Lord.” This can be interpreted as “news for everybody”. However, scholars point out that “all” in this instance refers to the people of Israel. It is only later in verse 32, that Luke makes it clear that the news is also (in Simeon’s words) “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”
Of course, many biblical scholars now challenge most of the details in the Nativity story and dismiss it as myth, but the scholars are, perhaps intentionally, ignoring key facts. First, the story has been accepted as factual for nearly two thousand years, and, second, its imagery has relevance in 2019. (See reference 1, below.)
Today, illustrations and representations of the birth of Jesus exist in their millions. Images appear on countless Christmas cards, and Creche-scenes appear in schools and outside churches, as an essential backcloth to Christmas. Sadly, the images may be taken for granted. Many people may have stopped thinking about their significance: which is that at the heart of Christianity there is a gospel of love, demonstrated in the motherly love of Mary for her baby, Jesus, and by the Christian belief that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’.
The immediate image is of a normal, unitary family being at the heart of Christianity. Of course, In 2019, the unitary family is not seen as the only type of family unit, but it is, surely, still regarded an effective model, popular with many people.
We need to remember that, for most of recorded history, the unitary family has been the building-block for sustainable communities across the world. It has also been the model adopted across many religions. And before the Welfare State, belonging to a strong family unit, could make the difference between starvation and survival.
This explains why the birth of Jesus in a ‘normal’ family had so much meaning to people in the past. It spoke of a mother, a father, and a child, born in an atmosphere of love.
I like to think that the story of the Nativity (whether spread by word of mouth or by paintings on wood and stone) explains to us one of the reasons why Christianity spread rapidly through the Roman Empire, into Europe and, later, around the world. The images speak of love and new life, as experienced by most families, anywhere in the world.
From the start, Nativity imagery had a dramatic impact on women - possibly much more so than the initial impact on men. Mothers and daughters could immediately identify with Mary and the baby Jesus. We see this reflected today in the predominance of women in a typical church congregation.
What we, in 2019, need to remember is that this imagery contrasted starkly to the ‘real’ world, as most people found it in the past.
The Roman world was a violent world, and the following ‘Dark Ages’ and Middle Ages were often even more violent. And sadly, violence still affects many people around the world.
The Nativity story taught, and still teaches, that life can be so much better than it often is. It suggests we can believe in the power of love to reshape the world, or we can join those who prefer selfishness and hate.
The themes of love, duty and responsible living, were developed later by Jesus in his ministry. He followed John the Baptist, who taught that people needed to repent and wash away sin (much as one washes away dirt at the end of the day), to clean the mind, and develop a new a new life of the Spirit, based on love and compassion for others. (I realise that ‘sin’ [selfish thoughts, words and actions] and ‘repentance’ [simply accepting our frequent selfishness] are no longer fashionable concepts in the Western world: but this does not undermine their significance.)
I imagine story tellers in the early centuries of Christianity: mothers talking to groups of women and children, and itinerant preachers or travelling story tellers. I imagine them in some great hall or in a lowly cottage, (in a dark room, lit by a log fire and rush-lights or candles) telling the story of Jesus’ birth and entrancing their audience! This is long before most of them would have encountered a rare bible, hand-written in Latin.
Think of the implications. When the story of the birth of Jesus was told in the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity, it was not often read from a rare and valuable bible. It was one of a number of Christian stories that people heard frequently, told by story tellers and priests in the local language.
When the Nativity Story was joined with the parables of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, they summed up, for all, what a Christian life should be about!
This is how most Christians learned that Jesus identified himself with the marginalised and disadvantaged in society, with the poor, the oppressed, and those who suffered through illness or circumstances. Church services commonly emphasised the ceremony of ‘Mass’, praising God, and the power of priests when forgiving sins. Bible readings, where used, were generally read in Latin.
To conclude: The Nativity Story is much more than a charming tale for children at Christmas. In the words of Adrian Alker, it is a tale that reminds adults that light can overcome darkness, peace can overcome conflict, humility can overcome power, and life is best founded on love, joy and goodwill.
So, perhaps, today, we should encourage more people to look again at the Nativity story. It is the birth story of Jesus in poetic language, even for those who can believe in the supernatural. It is also the birth story of Christianity, and of the idea that love (as experienced in a good unitary family) can create the new and better world, here and now: a world that in the Bible is called the ‘kingdom of God’.
Methodist Task Group Report to Conference, 2019, Marriage and Relationships. (This Report is controversial and worth serious study.)