Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the early chapters of the prophet Isaiah where he rejoices that “[t]he people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.” They rejoice because “[f]or there is a child born for us, a son given to us.” Isaiah promises that this son will restore the throne of David and establish justice and integrity. Luke describes the now famous scene where Joseph and his pregnant fiance Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and can’t find a place to lodge. They find themselves in a barn because there was no room in an inn. There Mary gives birth and they place their son in a manger. Meanwhile an angel appeared to some shepherds and told them about this birth.
Earlier this week I spoke about how some Bible stories have become so familiar to us that we can overlook the intent of the authors. Perhaps no scene makes my point better than Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. In 1223 St. Francis, out of a devotion to the baby Jesus, built the first nativity set. In the 900 years since then nativity sets have proliferated throughout the world (and raises the question of why St. Francis didn’t patent his nativity set). His invention has given us the image we all carry of that holy night. Full disclosure: my wife collects nativity sets and I can’t guess how many we own. Further full disclosure: when I was growing up our only Bible was stored in the attic with the rest of the Christmas decorations. When we put up the Christmas tree, the nativity set, and the lights, we also brought out the family Bible and opened it to a picture of the nativity set.
But there’s a problem with this. Luke wrote in incredible detail about the time and place of Jesus’ birth and this has led to numerous challenges in the historical record. Because the Romans of the time kept excellent records we actually know a fair amount of what happened at the time. And in fairness, Luke wrote his Gospel 70 CE, several decades after these events.
Many Christians argue that since Scripture is inspired, all these details are exactly correct. Joseph and Mary were engaged but not married, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit which preserved Mary’s virginity, they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem at the direction of Cesar Augustus, etc.
Others claim this series of events simply aren’t possible. Cesar Augustus demanded that everyone return to their ancestral home, which for Joseph was Bethlehem (since he was a descendant of David). But since it’s generally assumed that the purpose of the census was taxation, why did Joseph and Mary need to leave their home? If Mary wasn’t Joseph’s wife, we can assume that she was still lived in her father’s home; could an unmarried couple travel? If Jesus was born in Bethlehem, why was he referred to as a Nazarene? Many will be troubled by this but rumors since the 2nd Century CE have argued that Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier named Pantera.
This group has argued that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t the Messiah, but a fraud, an illegitimate child who spent his adult life desperately attempting to convince people that his story fit into the narrative we now take for granted. When he was executed by the Romans his followers dreamed his resurrection and have spend the last 2000 years selling this dream.
Unfortunately, here in 2018 we feel pressure to take sides. Can we find the truth in believing every word of Luke’s account or should we look at troubling facts as a justification to dismiss that this ever happened?
In a few days families all over the Christian world will gather to celebrate Christmas. Families will share a table and food but may not share beliefs about this event. And for many families they will share drink that will make this worse.
But if we believe anything about Christmas, we should look not to those things that divide us, but those things that unite us. It shouldn’t matter if Luke was factually correct: he can be forgiven if he has some of his facts wrong. We should also allow for the possibility that we’ve been misunderstanding some of the Old Testament prophecies. Instead let us look at Luke as someone who spoke a dramatic truth to us: God chose to become human and dwell among us. God created us, much as an author creates a character, and decided that creating something wasn’t intimate enough. God decided that love for us demanded that God wouldn’t be satisfied with watching creation from a distance but instead desired to dwell among us.
At the end of the day we can believe that it doesn’t matter the circumstances of Jesus’ birth or the location. It doesn’t matter that Joseph and Mary may or may not have had to travel to Bethlehem or that Jesus was born in a feeding trough in a barn.
What matters is that God chose to crash into us and our experience and ensure that the distance between author and character disappeared. God is divine and we are human, but Christmas tells us that because God became human we are also divine.
Going forward this allows us to act with divinity toward each other, and act as God would act if he were here. This this does not diminish or dismiss real differences. We regularly interact with (and even love) people who don’t share our beliefs or even values. But it’s worth exploring these beliefs and values, and more to the point, the beliefs and values of others. This doesn’t mean we have to abandon our beliefs or values, but if everyone does this, we can’t help but move closer together.
And maybe it will make Christmas dinner a little less contentious.