Christmas Eve 2015
The Gospel of Jesus
Jesus was a descendant of Abraham. Jesus’ parents were named Joseph and Mary. Jesus was born when Herod was king. Eight days later, when the time came to circumcise him, they gave him the name Jesus. Many in Jesus’ hometown asked, “This is the carpenter, isn’t it? Isn’t he Mary’s son? And who are his brothers, if not James and Judas and Simon? And who are his sisters, if not our neighbors? Phillip tells Nathanael, “We have found Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth. “From Nazareth?” Nathanael said to him. “Can anything good come from that place?” (Robert Funk et al, The Gospel of Jesus According to the Jesus Seminar).
And that is all we know about the birth and family of the historical Jesus. Those few sentences scattered throughout the gospels are all that is plausible about his parentage, family, and hometown.
How then did we get to Christmas with virgin births, the manger, shepherds, stars, angels, wise men, and December 25th?
We begin with two separate legends. One found in Matthew and the other in Luke. When I use the word “legend” I am not being dismissive, as if it is “only a legend,” therefore ignore it. I am being descriptive. Stories of miraculous births whether they are about the birth of Jesus, Moses, Augustus Caesar, or of any gods or divinely blessed mortals, are told through legend. They are not history as we understand history.
The ancient writers were not writing history. They were writing mystery. They told stories to capture the character and the meaning of the person. When you told a story about the significance of someone’s life in the ancient world, old stories were best. You imitated stories that were well-known and with creativity adapted them to fit the person you were celebrating. The gospel writers were not interested in the facts about Jesus as we might be. They were interested in the meaning of Jesus as they interpreted it.
How did they use symbols, tropes, plots, and metaphors to tell their story and what story were they telling? Before we ask that question, we have to ask a more basic one: why did they need a story of Jesus (whose name by way, means savior) anyway?
The Jews were under occupation. When Jesus was born the occupying power was Rome. When the gospels were created, perhaps as many as 80 to 100 years or more after his birth, Jerusalem had been burned and their temple destroyed by the Romans. The Jews were in conflict politically and theologically with Rome.
In Roman Imperial Theology here is how the divine powers worked. You went to war. You were victorious. There was peace. This is not unlike imperial theologies throughout history including in our own time. God blesses the victor. Who was the victor? Augustus Caesar. He was announced divine at birth. According to legend his father was a god. Because of his military victories and for bringing peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces, he was raised to divine status. Coins bore the inscription that he was son of god. He earned the title by victory in war.
What about the Jews? Obviously, in this theological system, they were not favored by the gods. To the victor goes true religion. But the Jews and the early Jewish movements that centered around Jesus did not accept Roman religion. They had a different vision of God. The God of the Jews and of Jesus said you get peace through justice in which justice means enough for everyone. You don’t get lasting peace through war and victory, but through non-violence and justice.
Jesus was a Jew. The earliest sayings and actions associated with him show him to be a wisdom teacher and social prophet. His vision was in direct conflict with Roman theology. Instead of war to victory to peace, his vision looked to non-violence to justice to peace.
He articulated a vision that was already present even if at times hidden in his own tradition. It would be a vision that would be both present and hidden again in the traditions and centuries that followed him. His vision captured the imaginations and the hopes of those who heard him and who believed that it might be possible for everyone to have enough, to live in harmony with Earth, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and thus to live in peace. To live metaphorically on God’s mountain where no one will hurt or destroy.
Jesus was executed by the Romans with the assistance of local religious and political authorities. But his vision did not die with him. Stories about him were told. Sayings were collected. Some events remembered. Many stories and sayings were created. All these stories eventually made their way into theological narratives or gospels. These narratives were not history but mystery. They were stories of his meaning for those who told them.
Paul was one such meaning maker. He didn’t know the historical Jesus. The Apostle Paul turned Jesus into a cosmic savior, a cosmic Christ, saving us from sin and even death itself. This theology influenced the gospels.
Two gospels in the New Testament tell of his birth. Matthew imitated the story of the birth of Moses, also a legend. Both Moses and Jesus are saved from ruthless leaders (Pharaoh and Herod, respectively) who slaughter innocent children in failed attempts to kill these destined heroes. Moses grows up to lead the people from bondage in Egypt. Jesus, for Matthew is like Moses.
In Luke, the good news of the birth of Augustus and Roman Imperial Theology is turned on its head. The language that belonged to Caesar inscribed on imperial coins and stone temples, “the savior who brings peace to the world,” is applied to Jesus whose birth announcement is given to shepherds, the bottom of the economic, social, and political ladder. The choice is clear. Does peace come through war and victory or through non-violence and justice? Which god will we serve? Which god will save us? For whom will you vote, Jesus or Caesar? That is the scandal of Christmas: we will find peace through justice not victory in war.
Yet even within Luke and Matthew, the meaning and significance of Jesus is being shaped by other theological needs. He is becoming more of a god than a human being and his significance is becoming more cosmic than practical. Influenced by Paul’s theology, Jesus is the cosmic Christ who comes to die for the sins of the world. The birth stories of Jesus both preserve his vision and move beyond it.
By the time we get to the second century, the Jesus movement has separated itself from its Jewish roots altogether. Jesus is nearly fully god by now. He is divine and sinless, thus Mary’s virginity and her purity are emphasized.
Tonight we will hear portions of two other legends. The first is The Infancy Gospel of James. It was composed in the middle of the second century. It tells about Mary’s childhood, a birth also by the Holy Spirit. Mary has parents, Joachim and Anna, and stories are told about them. Joseph is an old man because it would be unseemly for Mary to have any relations with him. We find that Mary is a teenager when she gives birth. Jesus’s brothers and sisters become step-siblings. They become children of Joseph born long before Jesus is born. Meanwhile Mary is well on the way to becoming a perpetual virgin.
It is in the Infancy Gospel of James that we learn some interesting details that have become part of the tradition. For instance, Mary rides a donkey to Bethlehem. We also discover the tradition of Jesus being born in a cave and the magic of the silent night, when everything stops moving and becomes perfectly still at the moment of his birth.
Around the year 600, the stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood are collected into a work called The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior. It is also known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In this marvelous collection of legends, Jesus exerts divine powers from the moment he is born. We will hear a couple of those stories tonight. It is in this text that we learn an ox and an ass are present at the birth. The ox and ass are in nativity scenes and featured in Christmas carols.
On the flight to Egypt, the infant Jesus causes a palm tree to deliver fruit to his mother. You will find a version of this story in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. The Cherry Tree Carol is based on this story and tells it a bit differently. We will hear that song tonight, too.
Also during the flight to Egypt, the first family confronts dragons, lions, and panthers. The Baby Jesus is not afraid. He commands them to obey and of course, they do. He is the king of creation even at birth.
There is much debate regarding the date of his birth, December 25th. One theory is that the date is borrowed from various solstice celebrations. But it could be that it was based on a calculation regarding Passover, the time the gospels record his execution. Tertullian around the year 200 calculated that the crucifixion occurred on the 14th of Nisan, based on his reading of the Gospel of John. In the Roman calendar that would be, March 25th.
This same date, March 25th, was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation, or Jesus’ conception. In other words he was believed to have been conceived on the same date that he was crucified. Nine months following March 25th is December 25th, the date of his birth.
This is of course all legend based on theology. One medieval painting has the Baby Jesus coming down from heaven carrying his cross. The theological structure is about Jesus Christ whose purpose is to die on the cross to save humanity from sin and thus offer eternal life on a new heaven and a new earth.
We’ve come a long way from the historical Jesus. It is a challenge to discover how legends and theological traditions originate, but like Velcro balls, they pick up whatever is in their path.
Tonight we celebrate the legends surrounding Jesus. It is Christmas. We embrace the magic. We delight in the mythology. We contemplate the theology. We pause to honor this holy night. We open our mind and heart to the virgin, the angels, and the adoring shepherds. We welcome Jesus Christ: the Divine Son, Light from Light, Very God of Very God, King of Heaven and Earth. Yes, yes.
Amidst it all, I would like to light one candle for the real person buried underneath the layers of legend and theology. I light a candle for the vision of Jesus of Nazareth, the vision of a human being who had a hope and a conviction that there could be a lasting peace in this world, if we could be humble, wise, and courageous enough to seek justice for everyone.