Rev Dr Walter Stratford. [see details about his book at: Why are you here Elijah, now available as a kindle publication]
Following the discussion about the meaning of Christmas at the PCNQ gathering at New Farm last Wednesday, Wally has been inspired to write this….
The gospel account of Jesus of Nazareth was written as an assertion that Jesus was the Son of God. The claim comes from the experiences of followers of the way and was expanded into a declaration on which the church was built. The gospel according to Luke provides the story that claims Jesus’ birth as an eternal truth.
The angel said to her, ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be Holy; he will be called Son of God’ (Lk1:35).
At the appropriate time Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem. ‘While they were there the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her first-born son…’ (Lk.2:6-7).
These few verses from Luke’s account continue to be a focal point for the church’s declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, the birth narrative recognized as definitive of his divine relationship. This literal understanding of Jesus’ birth was linked by early theologians to a claim that the scriptures of the Jews contained words of promise that found their outcome in Jesus. His sacrificial death and the claims of his resurrection sealed the promises of redemption and became the rock on which, it may be said, the church stands or falls.
It is generally agreed that Luke was a Gentile God worshipper before converting to Christianity. The consensus is that he was writing to fellow Gentiles, some of whom may have also been God worshippers.
The Gentiles of that middle eastern area contained among their numbers the strong influence of many Greeks and Romans. Within this mix were many religious stories which included visitations of the gods with human women. Children born of such liaisons were referred to as sons of the gods. Some of these went on to become gods. Hercules is one so named. Alexander a warrior of considerable renown was named as a god. Augustus, Roman emperor, on his demise was proclaimed a god.
So, the first point is that the story of Jesus’ birth is located readily in this Gentile environment. It has more to do with myth than with demonstrable truth.
It is also important as a second point to realize that Luke’s viewpoint was ‘written’ around 80 years after Jesus’s birth. It is written from within a group of followers of the way – apparently Gentile in their origins. It seems unlikely that after 80 years the detailed description of the happenings surrounding Jesus’ birth could still be contained in memory.
Thirdly, to present the gospel theme as literally true does not take account of the mythology of the time, nor the many years of argument and discussion prior to the eventual determination of the essentials of the faith to which all were called to accede.
This sweeping background on which the church was grafted, gave rise to many practices that are questionable in this 21st century. In our time where many bemoan a steady demise of the Christmas story as more and more it is overlaid by the world, I think what is needed is a different story.
The story that I like to tell has its beginnings in Genesis. You will know the story. It begins with the wind or spirit of God blowing over the water. A lot happens until we reach the intimate moment of people’s beginnings. The action of this moment requires of each of us, an element of imagination. “Then the Lord God formed mansic from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the mansic became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Imagination will hear God say with the breath: “The life of God for the life of humankind” In my reading of these first two chapters, I am prepared to say that breath and Spirit go together. We may claim therefore that as we breathe, so also the Spirit is present. This presence is life giving.
Our different story does not begin with a baby Jesus – it begins at the beginning of everything. It says that always and constantly the Spirit is present in every life. All of this is part of the different story. This presence does not need the continual presence of a baby. The Spirit is robust, paradoxical, mysterious. It rides the wind that we breathe, and consistently enables life. The baby born again every year may thus become symbolic of new life constantly growing and developing and becoming adult.
I think that this story is essential, even in Christmas celebrations that have become a once a year event – to which all are invited, and large numbers attend. The glitter expands year by year in dazzling arrays of gifts to satisfy every desire. It seems at times that life has been put aside in favour of the satisfaction of immediacy. There is however, much in Christmas that is good, there is much that is important in its celebration. The glamour is seductive, but also deceptive.
Beneath the glamour is a mostly forgotten world of a young man who demonstrated in his life and death the vitality and possibility of life with the Spirit of God. He is seen in our day among those who fight fires, as a companion to the frail, as one who vindicates the less fortunate, as one condemning violence. This young man, Jesus is quoted as saying something akin to: “The reign of God is within you” (Lk 17:21).
Listening to the people, we discover that Christmas is a time for family and sharing, for gathering and companionship, a time for holidaying and enjoyment. Christmas has the power to distract us from disturbing influences. Perhaps here is some merit however, in remembering that the time of Jesus birth was a disturbing time of considerable violence. Disturbing times are still with us.
Nevertheless, there is a thread of strength in the Christmas message, in which, if we have ears to hear, we will discover its potential as a catalyst for change in ordinary everyday life, a time for imagining possibility. Christmas spilling over into the New Year every year, may become every year a reminder of the connections humankind has with a mysterious, ambiguous and paradoxical Spirit.