I am again working my way through Marcus Borg’s and John Crossan’s 2007 book The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Birth. I love the way they gently invite readings to set aside questions about the factuality of the events described so differently in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, as well as the genealogies each gospel writer offers, and instead consider their meaning for first century readers. The story of Jesus’ birth, when taken as a parable (not a fake story, but a story that speaks to a deeper truth of human existence and God’s presence in it), invites us—especially those of us living in North America—to consider the worlds in which we live. Yes, more than one world.
Looking at my own context I live in a world where I, as a white male, enjoy certain assumed privileges with regard to how I am received. For instance, when I enter a store (no one assumes I might steal something, especially when I wear my clerical collar)—my colleagues of color have shared with me horrific stories, even when they were wearing their clerical collars. Another world involves the fact that I grew up in a family somewhere between the upper-middle and upper socio-economic classes—we had big Christmas’, even when things were “tight” we always had food on the table, and my parents paid for most of my undergraduate college education (to the tune of about 90%, if we include living expenses). Another world in which I live I am a husband and father of two children. In another world, I am an old friend, especially with people who knew me before I went off to seminary to become a pastor. And, the world in which I get labeled the most: I am a Presbyterian minister who serves as pastor of a mid-sized congregation—this also offers certain privileges and certain have to deal with many gross assumptions from those inside and outside the community in which I serve (trying going on an airplane and tell the people sitting next to you you’re a pastor and see what happens, something I try very hard to avoid sharing).
The context around Jesus involves the Roman Empire. While certainly not one of the most brutal empires to rule the earth, it certainly did not tolerate sedition. The Jewish people living in Palestine were already on Rome’s list of people to be watched. Though small in number, they had already tried to overthrow Rome’s leadership put in place there. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, he would have known about the uprisings in the aftermath of Herod the Great’s death in about 4 BCE, and the rhetoric of those uprisings to replace the tyrannical rule of Rome with “a just and God-appointed rule.”1 If anything these uprisings were more annoying to Rome than a real threat. They required Rome to move troops securing the outer perimeters of the empire and bring them to Nazareth and Jerusalem to quell the rebellions, and then go back—it cost more money and left the borders vulnerable. When these legions came, they did not have time to waste so they laid waste to the rebellious cities, leaving behind burning homes and piles of corpses.
Of course, Rome’s attempts to quell the rebellions did not engender the townspeople to foreign rule, they fueled the fire of rebellion. And then here comes Jesus, having grown up in the aftermath of these rebellions, and quite possible having witnessed Rome’s power himself. He speaks of “turning the other cheek” in order to stand your ground and be treated as an equal by Roman soldiers, and not as less than human (a backhanded slap being a great insult and the treatment of uncompassionate master to belittled slave). He tells his followers that when a soldier requires you to carry his armor 1 mile (which they were legally allowed to do, and you, as a Roman citizen were legally required to do), carry it 2 miles (for which the soldier can be seriously punished, but who holds the power now?). His ways were not the ways of the zealots of his time, who sought time and again to fight Rome with swords, and who nearly every time died by Roman swords or upon one of the many crosses lining the streets enter towns (a handy reminder to townspeople of Rome’s power and might, and a warning to those who even think about rebelling).
I have struggled for decades with the Christmas stories as they have been received and retold at Christmas time, especially in Christmas pageants as the stories of Matthew and Luke (two very distinct stories with distinctly different purposes) are mashed together to create some sort of meta-narrative. Something just seemed wrong. And where the heck did the donkey come from? It’s in neither of the two gospel birth narratives! In some ways, I have felt like an poser on Christmas Eve, quietly going along with the will of the people (building golden calves because that’s what they want and that’s what they expect of me, says Aaron in Exodus 32). It has always felt wrong.
But Borg and Crossan have challenged me to consider these narratives as I have approached so much of the Bible—not as a history book full of acts and figures, but as a parabolic meta narrative of God’s creative and grace-filled work of trying to reconcile a divided and self-loathing people. The gospels serve to help us understand what it is that God has been trying to do since the dawn of humanity, something Jesus obviously understood and sought to embody. And then Jesus invited others to learn how to contextualize and embody these teachings. Jesus did not bring anything new. His words echo the prophets of old who sought to call Israel on its hypocrisies and turn back to the God who really does love them and who really does want the best for them and who really does want to see them prosper, but not on the backs of the poor or the sufferings of their neighbors.
I am excited about our Christmas pageant this year. I think it brings to life the meaning behind the Christmas story. I’m sure it will ruffle a few feathers as it is slightly less than traditional. But good! It should ruffle a few feathers. My feathers were standing on end when I read the script. I was challenged by it, just as we should be challenged by the stories of our gospels, which speak to the larger truth of God’s vision for humanity. This is what the season of Advent is supposed to be about, anyway—taking stock of our lives, investing in prayer and honest self-reflection, sharing the good news of God’s love with our family and neighbors, all to celebrate the indwelling of God’s presence in our lives not only through Jesus but through the example he has given us. Praise be to God, and happy Advent, my friends!
1 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (New York: HarperColins, 2007), 76.