The Christmas Story You Never Heard
We forget, when we hear stories of old, like those in the Bible, that ancient ears would have heard them differently than modern ears. That which is commonplace to us now--angels appearing to shepherds in fields abiding--might have been scandalous in an earlier time. Shepherds? Why them? Angels wouldn't appear to shepherds, or to any other low-lifes, let alone to a female teenager! Before the story even gets its legs, in biblical times it would already have set off alarm bells.
Maybe that's just what those stories need--the Christmas story in particular--a little shock and awe! We've heard that story so many times, not only could we sleep through it when it's read at the midnight Mass, we could recite it in our sleep!
For years, as I rose in the pulpit or wandered up the aisle, I struggled to find meaning in the story. How is it, again, that the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph two thousand years ago brings new life to us today? Okay, Emmanuel means "God is With Us," I get that. But don't we already believe that this is true, with or without a virgin birth? Wasn't God with the People of Israel before Jesus' time? Wasn't God with the first Peoples, whether or not we name them Adam and Eve? "Man [sic] will live forever more," we sing, "because of Christmas Day." Really? So, it's not so much about his birth as about his death? He was born to die, to give us eternal life? Is that the "good news" in this story about the birth of a baby?
Over the years, preaching about Christmas never got easier. Partly, this was because the range of interpretations narrowed considerably whenever the expectations of the congregation ran high, as they did at Easter as well. People wanted a baby at Christmas, an empty tomb at Easter. They didn't want, "on the one hand this, on the other hand that." They wanted clear unmitigated truth and stories so simple and straightforward you could tell them to the grandchildren on your knee.
Forget that the earliest writer in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul, the person closest in time to the actual Jesus of Nazareth, knew nothing of either event. The details of both the Christmas and Easter stories came not from eye-witness accounts at all, but much later from some mischievous theological myth-making. Forget that stars don't direct people to specific dwellings and that virgins can't conceive. This isn't about the facts. This is about mythology. But ... what does it all mean?
Thankfully, someone's done more thinking about this than I. Nick Coates, a young buck minister in the United Church, feeling the same frustrations while preparing his own Christmas Eve sermons, decided to dig a little deeper. What did this story mean to the people of the time, he asked? The answers, hidden right there in plain sight, not only jar us out of our seasonal complacency, they actually give us back the Christmas story, in all its unsettling, modern-day relevance.
Why did the angels appear to shepherds? To what was Mary actually consenting? Why did the detail of the star matter, in the story of the magi? What was the hope all this was pointing to, for a religious people oppressed and dominated by the brutal and pervasive Roman Empire? And what's the hope this gives to us today?
This week's Mystic Cave podcast is a special Christmas edition where Nick shares with us the story behind the Christmas story. It's worth a listen, even though you think you've heard it all before. Chances are, you haven't.
This week on the Mystic Cave (just press Play):