We all think we are familiar with the Biblical Christmas story – we’ve all been to school nativity plays and heard the familiar, oft-recited tale of Angels and Virgins, Kings and Shepherds.
And yet, in truth, it is difficult to make sense of the Christmas story – or, rather more accurately, the confusing and sometimes contradictory birth narratives contained within the gospels. Indeed, if we are to take them literally they seem to make no sense whatsoever.
The Gospel of Mark, the first to be written, contains no birth references at all. St Paul, writing in the Epistle to the Galatians some time before, simply stated that Jesus had been “born of a woman”. It is Matthew who first introduces us to the idea of a Virgin Birth, King Herod, Magi bearing gifts, a strange star and a flight into Egypt; Luke, writing shortly afterwards, doesn’t so much heavily edit Matthew’s story but entirely reworks it. While Luke retains the Virgin Birth, he ignores the rest of it – while introducing Mary’s relative Elizabeth (in an attempt to link Jesus biologically to John the Baptist), the census, the shepherds and the presentation of Jesus in the temple. The fourth gospel, that of John, sees no reason to add to this clearly developing narrative, preferring simply to make the claim that Jesus always had been: “He was with God in the beginning” (Jn 1:2)
Most of what we believe to constitute the Christmas story therefore comes from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. We have a tendency to merge them into one, creating a “super gospel” – something the respective writers certainly never intentioned. The accounts cannot be harmonised; indeed, they should not be harmonised as they were never intended to be. Matthew (at pains to claim Jesus as a descendant of King David in a lengthy genealogical list that contains errors and points to the author’s inability to count) names Joseph’s father as Jacob, while Luke states his name is Heli. Matthew has Jesus born at the time of King Herod the Great (who died in 4 BCE); Luke claims that the birth occurred at least ten years later when Quirinius was governor of Syria . Matthew tells of a massacre of innocents under Herod, and of the Holy family taking refuge in Egypt; Luke has them staying a few days in Bethlehem before making a trip to the Temple in Jerusalem and thereafter returning home. There are other glaring contradictions.
And that’s before we ask some practical questions as to how it would have been possible to follow a star, which would have meant travelling at night – a hazardous task at the dawn of the first century – or why anyone would have needed for the purposes of a census to travel to the home town of descendants who had died a millennium previously?
The reality is that, in spite of the fact that most Christians seem to believe in both gospels (I’ve yet to meet any Christian who claims to believe in one rather than the other!), it is actually intellectually impossible to accept both as truth simultaneously – at least if understood literally.
How then do we make sense of the Christmas story? To take the birth narratives literally is to miss the point: they are not, and should not be seen as, historical eyewitness accounts. They need to be read and understood with Jewish eyes, in the context of first century social and religious history and the Hebrew tradition of midrashic storytelling. The narratives are perfectly symbolic.
Matthew’s account is full of symbolism – that of the star (the light of the world being literally visible to everyone), mysterious foreigners travelling to worship him (again, pointing to Jesus’ appeal to the entire world) the status of refugee (Jesus’ rejection by the world), and the gifts of the Magi (symbolising his divinity, holiness and mortality). Luke’s is similar: no room in the inn (social rejection) and angels appearing to shepherds (the shepherds signifying that the gospel was for the humble, rather than the great and the good; the sheep themselves pointing to the Passover sacrifice and the nature of Jesus’ death).
The story is not in fact about Jesus’ birth, but an attempt to make sense of his life and purpose. To grasp its meaning requires us to understand it as an explanation of who Jesus was, rather than as literal history. The way we think about the birth stories is mainly fanciful, and even the gospel writers would be stunned to hear carols such as Silent Night (no birth of any child is silent!) or We Three Kings (the Bible makes no reference to Eastern kings, only “magi”; we don’t know how many there were and we certainly don’t know their names).
Perhaps the most intellectually honest way to consider the birth stories is to consider their themes, and in this respect at least there is a great deal of common ground. The real meaning is not about the birth of Jesus, but what he represented to the authors. To both he is portrayed as hope for a world in need, but Luke goes further. The angels, when delivering their messages to both Mary and the shepherds, have this to say: “fear not!”
“Fear not!” – that is Luke’s message to a world gripped by fear, and it is as relevant today as it was two millennia ago. The recent events in Paris, and the response, has shown how pervasive an emotion fear can be, how it distorts perception and creates tensions. We live in a world – in a country, even – when fear abounds, whether it is fear of discrimination, of victimisation, of financial hardship, of multiculturalism, of insecurity, or of terrorism. Luke recognised that fear has a tendency to breed irrationality, which creates hostility and which in turn grows more fear. It’s a cycle, but one Luke feels we can be delivered from.
The message of Luke’s Christmas angels is not to remember Jesus’ birth. It is not to attend midnight mass, or do any of the other religious things church culture tells us points to “the real meaning of Christmas”. It is to abandon fear. And we can do so because, for Luke, there is cause to turn our back on fear and instead embrace hope. What both Luke and Matthew make clear is that Jesus is for all the world, and that the lives of all of us are therefore holy and sacred. All humanity is equal in God’s sight. LGBTI lives are as God-imbued as any other. Black lives are as valuable as white lives. Muslims are as valuable as Christians. As Paul wrote to the Galatians “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)
There is little room for hate and intolerance in a world that does not fear, but instead chooses to love (1 Jn 4:18). Fear paralyses and imprisons, and there can be no denying its destructive power. But the message in the gospels is that it can be overcome.
The Christmas message is therefore an inclusive one. It is about embracing who we are, accepting our equality, rejecting fear and daring to hope. For Luke, Jesus’ meaning empowers us to be more complete human beings – all of us are whole. When one of us is demeaned, we all are. When one group of people are marginalised, belittled, judged, abused or discriminated against – often as a by-product of the power of fear – society suffers. Casting off fear is not some abstract choice, but central to forging a united, harmonious society – one free from intolerance and prejudice.
Fear Not! Non-judgment Day is coming!
All Biblical references are taken from the New International Version.