Christmas as a subversive parable

(Here’s the Reader’s Digest Version of my sermon yesterday.)

Did you know that only two of the four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ birth?  And did you know that they are vastly different stories? The Gospel of Matthew suggests that Jesus was born at home in Bethlehem, the angel comes only to Joseph, there is a star, magi from the east, an evil plot by King Herod to kill all the baby boys under two, and then Mary, Joseph and Jesus escape to Egypt. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, traveled to Bethlehem for the census where they had Jesus. The angel visited Mary and Zechariah, there are shepherds and an angel choir, but no star, no magi and no evil plot.  After Jesus is born, they have him circumcised on the 8th day in the synagogue, present him to Godat the Temple in Jerusalem at the appropriate time, and then return home to Nazareth.  Interesting, huh?

We tend to merge these stories in our heads, and in our songs and Christmas cards, but they are very distinct from one another. Because these two stories are so vastly different from each other, because they were written so long after Jesus died (around 80-90 CE), and because the earliest Christian writings of the Gospel of Mark and the letters of Paul say nothing about the birth of Jesus, most scholars and theologians agree that the birth narratives are not factually true.  So, if they weren’t true, then why write them?  Because they have a much deeper, more significant message, or “truth”, than can be superficially seen. If we remember that they were written at a specific time, in a specific place, for a specific people we can begin to unpack the depth of their meaning then, as well as the depth of their meaning for us today.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book “The First Christmas” encourage looking at the birth narratives as parable rather than historical fact.  In this way the truth of the story is not found in fact, but in the meaning.  And just like many of Jesus’ parables, “the birth stories are subversive… They subverted conventional ways of seeing life and God.  They undermined a ‘world,’ meaning a taken-for-granted way of seeing ‘the way things are.'”

The dominant worldview in the first century was that the Roman Empire was essentially the kingdom of God.  It has military, economic, political and ideological power. They ruled by might, seeking peace through oppression and violent control (in fact, there were uprisings against Rome all around Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth). And the Emperor was see as God.  Caesar Augustus was given the presumptuous titles of Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the World.  And King Herod was called the King of the Jews.  Any of those titles sound familiar? Yes, those were the same titles ascribed to Jesus.  Seems a little risky, don’t you think? In addition, Jesus’ message and example were about peace through justice – liberation, equality and freedom.

As for the story of the magi (which we read yesterday to celebrate Epiphany), there is great significance in the symbolism in that part of the story alone.  From ancient times, the star has symbolized the presence of God as well as illumination and guidance. The magi were more than just astrologers, they were wise, learned people (it doesn’t say they were all men, so in my mind at least one was a woman), who had religious significance.  They were thought to have a special, mystical connection with God and to have “secret wisdom” not known to ordinary people. Plus the magi came from the east, so we know they are not Jews or Romans, they are Gentiles. Herod attempts to extinguish the light that threatens his “kingliness”, but he is thwarted by the wise magi who refuse to comply with his request to report the location of the child born “King of the Jews.”

Put all of that together and we see that Matthew is making a spiritual and political statement and seeking to shift the dominant worldview.  Jesus (not the Emperor) was the light coming into a world ruled by darkness and violence.  He heralded the true kingdom of God (not Rome), one which brought peace to all people through justice, not victory.  And Jesus came for all people, not just the Jews, for even wise magi from other nations recognized his light, and stand in solidarity with Jesus against the powers of darkness. This is the “truth” embedded deeply within the parable of the magi. And it still has power for us today.

The light of Jesus still shines in the darkness, but there are Herods out there who would do anything to extinguish it to maintain their power and control. The question for us is: who are we in this parable? Are we the magi, illumined by the light, and refusing to aid in its suppression?  Or are we like Herod, fearful of change, defensive of our status and power? Are we supporters of those who rule with indimidation, fear and violence, or supporters of those who rule with compassion, love and justice? The choice is ours.