December 25, 2005: CHRISTMAS
Those who actually wrote and originally passed on our Christian Scriptures would have a difficult time understanding why we modern followers of Jesus get so excited about Christmas. They couldn’t appreciate how something they thought peripheral to their faith plays such a central role in ours.
Mark, the first gospel writer, doesn’t mention, much less describe Jesus’ birth. If one read only the earliest Christian writings – Paul’s letters – one would find very little about it. The two evangelists, Matthew and Luke, who narrate the event, do so in contradictory ways. The feast of Christmas wasn’t even celebrated during the church’s first centuries.
Why? The reason is simple: for Jesus’ immediate disciples, no occurrence could be in the same ball park with his dying and rising. This double event was the basis of their faith and at the heart of the message they proclaimed.
None of them, for instance, would have applied today’s Deutero-Isaiah passage to Jesus’ birth. In its original context, the person carrying Yahweh’s “glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation. ...” is addressing Jews who have been wasting away in the Babylonian Exile for almost 50 years. The prophet is demanding that his audience join him in praising Yahweh for the end of their captivity and the triumphant return to Jerusalem which they’re about to experience. Such words would have meshed only with the Christian experience of dying, then receiving a new life with Jesus. His historical birth was never as significant or memorable.
In a similar way, the author of our Hebrews pericope zeros in much more on what happened during and after Jesus’ death and resurrection than on what took place before it. Notice how the writer emphasizes “When the Son had cleansed us from our sins . . .” God’s speaking through the Son, creating with the Son, giving him a seat at the right hand of the majesty, even declaring him God’s Son, presuppose Jesus had already experienced the dying and rising which he expects us to imitate.
That seems to be why John’s well-known prologue comprising today’s gospel selection stresses not only Jesus’ pre-existence as God and his becoming flesh and dwelling among us, but also the sad fact that “his own did not accept him.”
We presume their rejection wasn’t triggered by Jesus’ pre-existence or birth, but because of the way he lived his life here on earth. It was his selfless giving that got him into trouble. How much “enduring love” can we actually take, much less integrate into our lives?
Many of us find it difficult to appreciate the faith and teaching of our evangelists because we don’t recognize what motivated them to create their writings. None of them intended to provide us with a biography of Jesus. They wrote not because they wanted to inform us of what Jesus said and did, but because they wanted to help us explore the meaning of what Jesus said and did. Don’t forget that many Christians lived their faith for over 40 years before the first gospel was written. That means that gospel narratives can’t be essential for our faith. They don’t give us faith, they simply help us understand the faith we already had before we ever read a gospel.
Before we get taken away by our modern celebration of Christmas, it might be good to remind ourselves of the dying and rising faith of Jesus’ first followers. Though none of the authors of our Christian Scriptures thought we could imitate Jesus’ birth, they were certain we could imitate his death and resurrection. They had already done so.
If we can’t find an aspect of the feast of Christmas in which we can die and rise, why, as Christians, are we celebrating it?