So, why do we celebrate Christmas? In the Christian line of belief, what part does Christmas play? Two of the Gospels, Mark and John, do not even include a reference to the birth of Jesus. Have a look – in Mark 1:9, Jesus makes his first appearance, a fully grown adult, to be baptised by John. In John, the Word is the great transcendent spiritual presence existing fully from before creation. The man Jesus again first appears fully grown at 1:29 to be baptised and proclaimed by John. The writers of both these gospels did not see his birth or childhood as something required in the presentation of the story of Jesus.
Of the other two, Matthew's narrative is not really a story of his birth, it is a story of the reactions of the world to Jesus' coming. The wisdom of the Magi searches for him, the lust for power of Herod tries to destroy him and the love of his father Joseph protects and saves him. It has always fascinated me how many Christmas cards have the Magi depicted on them – theirs is actually not a Christmas narrative. That is why we read their story at Epiphany, a couple of weeks after Christmas in January.
So, really, it is only the Gospel of Luke that sees the events of Jesus' birth as significant enough to be fully included in the holy scriptures. The familiar story of a manger in a stable, the shepherds and angels – that is all from the book of Luke. By the way – the ubiquitous donkey of all the Christmas cards – not there! It is likely a pregnant teenager Mary walked the hundred plus kilometres from Nazareth to Bethlehem. No wonder she was ready to drop the bundle when she got there!
Another historical hypothesis I have considered is that the reason Mary was in the stable for the birth was that she was in labour. There was no room in the public area of the inn for a woman about to give birth because of the Jewish custom around contact with blood. The Law dictated that any woman giving birth was to be isolated for a week if she had a boy, two weeks if a girl. It is all there in Leviticus 12 if you want to check! In many cultures, including Australian aboriginal, a woman must separate herself from shared spaces during birth. As Mary was away from her home town, her only option would be to separate herself to the shelter of the inn's stable. But that is just a theory of mine.
Back to what is there in the Christmas narrative of Luke. Take note again, as in Matthew, most of the space is taken up not by the birth itself, but with the 'parallel' birth of John the Baptist, the interaction of Mary with her 'kinswoman' Elizabeth, John's mother, and then the angels and shepherds. It is worth noting, the birth of John the Baptist takes up 44 verses, Mary visiting Elizabeth takes up 18, the actual birth of Jesus only 7 and the story of the shepherds a further 13 verses. Again, as in Matthew, the birth itself seems a less important part of the story than the effect it has on the people around it.
So we have this great celebration, probably the one Christian event that touches more people and is identified with Christianity in a greater way than any other, that we decorate our homes and streets for, cook special meals for, buy piles of presents for, send stacks of cards and wishes for, close our offices, factories and shops for – and it is contained in 7 verses of one gospel!
Now, I get Easter. The event of Jesus dying and rising from the tomb carries in it the whole Christian belief that Jesus has conquered sin by conquering its greatest component – death – to bring any who will follow him into God's eternal perfect existence. THAT merits celebration! In Jesus' earthly ministry, all that he did and taught guides us in how to live our life in the faith that believes God loves and accepts us. But what significance does Jesus' birth have? How does knowing the circumstances of his birth advance God's kingdom or bring us closer to it? Why does it merit being one of the two most significant celebrations of the Christian year? What do we gain by knowing it?
Here are my thoughts on the matter. What I celebrate at Christmas is that God came here and was one of us. Luke 1:23, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ This knocks me over just a bit. God decided to be with us. Remember – God did not have to do that.
This is the significance to me of the story of Noah. That ancient story tells us what God could have done with a disloyal, self-obsessed, unrewarding creation such as humanity has proven to be. It tells us what a logical God would have done. Get rid of this dud lot, and start again, to see if I can get them right this time! Lucky for humanity, what we have is a loving God that chooses to save us from ourselves instead.
God chose to be with us. Incarnation, literally meaning the taking on of flesh, was God's way of getting to the source of the problem and finding a way out for us. I say it again, because it is the part that leaves me totally amazed – God chose to be with us. Logic wouldn't do that, only love would.
Conception, pregnancy and birth are the way a human body takes on life and enters the world. That was Mary's gift to all humanity. Through that miracle of motherhood, she was the vessel in which God entered and shared our life.
There is another word that is important here, kenosis. It is a theological term drawn from the Greek word meaning 'to pour out' or 'to empty'. It is perhaps best conveyed in the words from the hymn in the letter to the Philippians, 2:5-7 Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
'The form of a slave' , the lowest of all humans. He not only poured out godliness to be human, he poured out any human glory or status or power to be the most humble of humans, a child born in poverty to insignificant parents. God chose to do all this for our sake. God did not seem to consider for a moment whether we deserved it or not, it would appear that was just not part of the plan. To quote Paul again, from the second letter to the Corinthians 8:9, For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
So there it is. My view on why this Christmas thing is something worth celebrating. We are not, to my mind, celebrating that a particular event happened, that a child was born sometime in history in a particular set of circumstances. We are celebrating that it WOULD happen. That God SO loved the world that he gave his only son. I like to really stress the SO. God SO loved the world. SO much. SO completely. SO unquestioningly. SO self-sacrificially. In that inexplicably overwhelming love, God chose to be with us. Emmanuel.
Have happy one! Bill.
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Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)