Every Christmas (and we’ll reprise this in a different form at Easter) there are always a few programs on TV that bring us the Christmas story from the perspective of modern Biblical criticism. The essential point is that the story of Jesus’ birth most likely didn’t happen the way St. Luke describes it in his famous account, which is the one read on Christmas Eve in most churches (or acted out in children’s pageants). We are reminded that there is no evidence to support a Roman census that required people to return to their hometowns (which, ala Luke, is how Mary and Joseph come to be in Bethlehem). We are reminded that the image of the stable and manger that populate our Christmas creches are not actually what those things would have looked like at the time and place of Jesus’ birth. Angel choirs singing to shepherds? Well, let’s just not go there. And, as an acquaintance of mine once pointed out to me more forcefully than was necessary: December 25 isn’t actually Jesus’ birthday — it was a popular pagan festival that the church took over and made into Jesus’ birthday (but he did have a birthday, I thought to myself, as my forceful acquaintance was carrying on).
It’s true, of course, that Christians were not initially that interested in the birth of Jesus. The earliest Gospel (Mark) and the even earlier epistles of the New Testament (Paul) mention not a word about it. By the time Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are scribed, some 90 years or so after that famous birth, people have clearly become interested in it, and so the story is told — actually, two stories are told: one in Matthew and one in Luke. As we all know, everyone liked Luke’s the best. The Christmas story is probably one of the best arguments for two things: for not reading our Bibles too literally and for how important it is for us to immerse ourselves in the biblical narrative.
We are not the first ones to figure out that the details of Jesus’ birth as they are given in the Gospels are not entirely, 100% accurate. The first ones who knew that were the people who wrote them down (Matthew and Luke, and probably someone else before them). Because in our time we value accuracy, we tend to project that concern for accuracy onto authors from earlier times, including the biblical writers. These writers themselves, however, were not primarily concerned with accuracy when it came to historical details. In the case of the Gospel writers, they were interested in proclamation: in sharing with the world the good news that they — and the communities of which they were a part — experienced in Christ. The New Testament proclamation tells us that those who spent time with Jesus experienced in his presence, and through his ministry, an intimacy with God that they had not experienced before. In and through Christ, they experienced God — and thus Jesus came to be identified with God in the minds and hearts of his followers. Jesus was born and has a personal history — and so, of course, people became interested in the story of his birth. The Gospel writers crafted this story to proclaim their experience of Christ. They didn’t want to create a reliable historical record — they wanted to tell a story that would proclaim what they knew Jesus in their experience to be.
So the treasured Christmas story is not accurate — but it is true. And we need the truth of that story to be a part of our lives. We need the truth that in Jesus God is seen and experienced in a way that can transform our lives. As we retell the beautiful story of the birth of Jesus, we are reminded of the deeper meaning of Jesus’ life. We are reminded that as Christ was born of Mary, so Christ can be born anew in each of our hearts and, through us, in our world. This is not simply a metaphor: it is a powerful reality that the Christian community has experienced again and again over the centuries, and which has changed the lives of countless people.
When we become caught up in the accuracy of the Christmas story, we lose the truth of the story, we lose the deep meaning that the story is meant to proclaim: in Christ, we encounter God. And God’s desire is that when people meet us, they will encounter Christ.
May the blessings — and the mystery — of this Christmas season be yours.