Thursday, December 13, 2012

What if there had been no Jesus?

I’ve asked myself this question almost every Christmas since I can remember. I asked it as a child, and I ask it now as I try to re-capture something of what it means to be childlike and less jaded by the conditions of the world.

I ask it not as a consumer, or as an outsider to Christianity, but because I am an “insider.” I ask it as a biblical scholar and as a pastor. After all, there are two very different birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. While much of Matthew’s gospel is built around the framework of Mark’s why doesn’t Mark include a birth story? Luke’s gospel is not like the other synoptic gospels in many ways and includes a number of different stories, and even contrasting information. John’s gospel also doesn’t approach the subject of Jesus’ birth. Add to these differences the indecency of knowing there was no Christian movement until after Jesus’ resurrection, or anything written down about his life according to the earliest Markan fragments until around 30 A.D. Jesus never started a church, or even a religion as best I can tell. The name Christian wasn’t of his invention. So using the Bible as a prop for understanding Christmas isn’t always as helpful as we want it to be.

The Christmas stories themselves are often contradictory. Luke seems to be making a theological statement about the purity of a Christ child born to a mother impregnated by the Holy Spirit, while Matthew is a little less concerned about Mary’s virginity, but more focused on the Davidic bloodline on Joseph’s side of the family. There are also the internal clues about shepherds abiding in the fields who probably would have been elsewhere with their sheep in the dead of winter, or Matthew’s account of the Wisemen who ended up finding Mary, Joseph and Jesus living in a house probably in Egypt after their fled Herod’s decree. Jesus was probably a toddler by the time the “three kings” arrived. It’s better than a sure bet they weren’t anywhere near the stable. The Roman census and the season of Jesus birth probably put his birthday sometime in the spring. But, oh how we love to package all of the cast together into one quiet scene with our crèches and lawn decorations that may include Santa and Frosty the Snowman.

There was no “Christmas” until Constantine synthesized the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia, the observance of the winter solstice, with church teachings during his reign as emperor as he Christianized the Roman world. So the church adopted this time of the year to commemorate the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

We’ve not always stuck with this date within the ranks of Christianity, or even commemorated this event at all. Contrary to what we might believe, the early Pilgrims and our Puritan ancestors didn’t acknowledge Christmas because of all the trappings of Roman Catholicism that the church had adopted. They were “pro-testants,” after all. The early colonists forbade the inclusion of Christmas observances in church and social life. Greek and Russian Orthodoxy still celebrate Christmas during the days of epiphany, and each culture that migrated to our shores brought its own traditions.

So. . . I ask my question each season of Advent with the same childlike, searching innocence of what is a bothersome academic question. I find myself asking if Voltaire may have been correct that if there were no God that humans would have created one anyway. I also find myself so deeply attached and emotionally pulled into Christmas that it is my favorite time of the year. Would the human spirit have needed to invent something as mysteriously glorious and joyful if there had been no Jesus?

But this season is not joyful for many people, so Christmas creates a conundrum for some of us. Those who suffer the grief of lost loved ones who still carry their grief don’t find this an easy time for celebrations. Those who were sexually wounded in the church, their families, or both have a hard time with Christmas celebrations. That’s why A Safe Place 2 Heal has Grace for the Wounded services. Those who are not Christians make the best out of this commercial nature of the holidays while we Christians want to have a public argument about whether to say “Merry Christmas,” or the more politically correct “Happy Holidays.” I’m fine with both, but throw in Hanukah and Kwanza, and a batch more of cultural events, and it gets difficult to say anything at all.

So I think of other things like how to be in community with others whom I love, and how to be with strangers in my midst. I ponder the hurt of those who suffer my celebrations in silence because Christmas is worse for them than no holiday at all. I also remember those who will not be with us this Christmas, and the empty place they leave at someone’s dinner table. There’s a sacred solemnness that we need to observe amidst the remnants of torn wrapping paper, the laughter of children, the singing of carols, and the nip of winter in the air. There’s a need for me to pause and find the moments in the rush of getting ready to wish that all may find a way to “sleep in heavenly peace.”

Merry Christmas to us all as we seek to bring joy and peace to one another.


Phil Leftwich

December 12, 2012

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