Thursday, 12 December 2013

Beyond the Tea Towels & Tinsel: What is Christmas About?

The following information below was written by Anne Le Bass, a priest in the south east of England, who put together this information about Christmas to help people understand what's in the story, and what isn't.  I've made a few small alterations to the tex. To download the original handout click HERE.

BEYOND THE TEA-TOWELS AND THE TINSEL: WHAT IS CHRISTMAS ABOUT?


For Christians the birth of Jesus is more than just a comforting story to brighten up a dark time of year. Nor is it a story primarily for children (or even necessarily suitable for children if we take it seriously). It encapsulates important themes in Christian belief.

DID IT HAPPEN?

Jesus certainly existed. There is no credible reason why anyone should invent him. No one in the earliest days of the church would have risked their life to follow a fictional character, so the Church would never have got off the ground if he hadn’t been real. Many of those who wrote the books that we now call the New Testament, although they may not have known Jesus themselves, knew people who had done.

If Jesus existed, he must, therefore, have been born. His first followers, however, do not seem to have been very worried about the circumstances of his birth. It wasn’t important to them. It isn’t referred to in the Epistles, most of which were written before the Gospels, and very little, if anything, essential to Christian faith depends on the details of Jesus’ birth.

Only two of the Gospels record any birth stories (Matthew, who tells the story of the Magi and Luke, who tells the story of the shepherds). There are interesting differences between the two versions, though that doesn’t stop us squashing them together in Nativity plays. Matthew, for example, has the Holy Family escaping to Egypt after the Magi’s visit. Luke has them apparently going back to Nazareth via Jerusalem when he is six weeks old. In Matthew the news that Mary is pregnant is announced to Joseph in a dream – Mary is not consulted, and her views are not recorded. In Luke the angel comes to Mary, and she is a major player in the story.

WHAT’S IN THE STORIES, AND WHAT ISN’T?

Matthew
Starts with a genealogy which begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. God had
made a covenant with him, that he would be the father of a multitude, God’s chosen people.
Matthew’s genealogy aims to show that Jesus is the true inheritor of that promise ; those who
follow him aren’t being traitors to their tradition. There are lots of reminders in the story of Old
Testament prophecies, (see, for example 1.23, 2.6, 2.15, 2.17, 2.23) These serve the same
purpose – Jesus isn’t an interloper, betraying the heritage of the Jewish people.

The genealogy includes 5 women. The first four could all in some way be regarded as unlikely
or even dodgy – outsiders in some way (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba ). They are all,
however, vital links in the chain – God uses them to advance the story, to keep the line going.
The final woman is Mary, who, it is plain was also regarded as an unlikely mother for a
Messiah.

Matthew continues with the annunciation of Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph (Mary’s reaction
is not recorded). He decides to stand by her, though others may think that this reduces his
dignity. Like the four earlier women in the genealogy, God works through an unlikely channel.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but we’re not told that the family have travelled there – the
assumption is that they lived there all along. There is no stable or any suggestion that there was
“no room at the inn”. There is no mention of Nazareth until the end of the story, when Joseph
takes Mary and Jesus there on their return from Egypt, apparently because he feels it will be
safer than Bethlehem.

Herod and the Magi. The magi are only in Matthew. We’re not told how many of them there
are, and they are not kings. There are no camels…! Their significance is that they are outsiders
– Gentiles – and that they see the true identity of the Messiah when the Jewish rulers don’t. God
works through outsiders (like Ruth in the genealogy) if his own people don’t see him.

The flight into Egypt and the massacre of the children of Bethlehem. Jesus is seen as a
challenge to the power of Herod. He is a new king. Matthew’s story has been called the story of
two kings (Herod and Jesus) and some wise men.

The return from Egypt after the death of Herod to Nazareth – a new home for Joseph and
Mary, not a return to an old home.

Luke
The annunciation in the Temple of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah by an angel.
He and his wife Elizabeth are elderly and childless. Zechariah can’t believe it and is struck
dumb until John is born.

The annunciation of birth of Jesus to Mary by an angel (Joseph’s reactions are not
recorded). They are living in Nazareth, which is, apparently their home town.

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Elizabeth greets Mary as “the mother of my Lord”. Mary speaks
words (called the Magnificat in later Christian tradition) which praise God because he “has
brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”).

The birth of John the Baptist and his naming. At which Zechariah speaks the words known
to later tradition as the Benedictus, announcing that this child will announce the time when the
people of Israel will “be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all that hate us” and “ by
the tender mercy of our God , the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those
who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”)

The birth of Jesus is set against a backdrop of political oppression in the rule of Caesar
Augustus. There is no record of a universal census at this time, but the point is that the people
of Israel are subject to the whims of rulers who can decree that they should all traipse about the
country for no very good reason.

The journey to Bethlehem. There is no donkey, nor any scenes of them going from inn to inn
and being turned away. There is no innkeeper (grumpy or otherwise).  The word translated as
"inn", is in fact a mistranslation, and more likely refers to an upper room in a family home.  It is
likely Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem, and they would have stayed with them, but because
the upper room was occupied, it meant the couple had to sleep downstairs in the open living
space where animals were kept at night for safety and where they ate from troughs dug into the
earth at one end of the room. Whilst nativity scenes depict a stable, it could have been a cave.  
There are no oxen, no cattle lowing (or doing anything else), no cats, dogs, birds, mice nor any
other animals. 

The annunciation to the shepherds. More angels. Opinions vary on the significance of the
shepherds. Some commentators say that they were regarded as the lowest of the low – living
out in the fields with the flocks meant they couldn’t keep the purity laws. Others suggest that
these shepherds may have been looking after the sheep used for sacrifice in the Temple in
Jerusalem (not far away) and so are a reference to Jesus’ self sacrifice (the Lamb of God who
is sacrificed, in the thought of the time, to end all sacrifice), or are a comment on the failure of
the Jewish religious leaders who should be “the shepherds of God’s flock”. There could also be
echoes of the story of Moses, who was looking after his father in law’s sheep when he
encountered God in the burning bush – once again unlikely people encounter God in an unlikely
way and begin a chain of events that will lead to a new liberation.

The circumcision and naming of Jesus. "Jesus” is a form of the name Joshua, which
means “God saves”. Joshua was the OT hero who succeeded Moses and led the Hebrews into
the Promised Land after the Exodus. Naming is important in this story – see the debate around
the naming of John, whose name means “God has given grace”.

The presentation of Jesus in the Temple at 40 days old. The sacrifice was a religious
requirement. Those who could afford it were to bring a lamb, but a pair of pigeons or
turtledoves was the permitted “budget” sacrifice for those who couldn’t. This tells us that Mary
and Joseph weren’t rich.

Simeon and Anna, devout elderly people who have been “looking for the redemption of Israel
(i.e. the coming of the Messiah) acclaim Jesus, who no one else has noticed. They bring to an
end the series of moments of “recognition” or annunciation which we have seen in Luke’s
account.
  
For the sake of completeness…

MARK’S Gospel begins with the adult John the Baptist announcing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He makes no reference to Jesus’ birth, except in a curious aside, (6.3) when Jesus is referred to by a hostile crowd as “Mary’s son”. It wouldn’t have been normal to refer to someone as the son of their mother, rather than their father, unless they were illegitimate, or their parentage in some way dubious. Mark’s Gospel is almost certainly the earliest, and may, therefore preserve an early rumour that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, which would have meant he was regarded with suspicion and disapproval.

JOHN’S Gospel begins with the famous passage, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….and the Word was made flesh and lived among us.” It is a meditation on the significance of Jesus, who was God’s expression of himself, in John’s thinking, bringing light and life to the world. However “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” John’s writing, late in the first century, is heavily tinged with Greek thinking. For him Jesus is, in some sense, a pre-existing divine figure; the other Gospels spell out far less clearly what they mean when they call him the “Son of God”.

THEOLOGICAL THEMES OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY FOR CHRISTIANS

Incarnation
For Christians the birth of Jesus speaks of God being present on earth in a way which we can see and touch, in human flesh (carnosus means fleshy ) subject to all the things that happen to human flesh – including suffering and death. Because we know that he has experienced what we experience we feel that he can understand and help us.

One of the titles given to Jesus in the birth stories is “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us.”

Incarnation is also significant for Christians because we see in it God putting aside his glory and coming among the least and the lowest (coming down to earth literally) “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,  did not regard equality with God   as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.5-8)

The Kingdom of God
The Christmas story represents a new beginning, the coming (“advent”) of God’s Messiah to bring in a new kingdom. During the preparation for Christmas (Advent) we think about the ways in which we still need God to come to us. We think about issues of peace and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. This is why Advent is a time of reflection and penitence – during it we become aware of our needs and the needs of the world. The Nativity stories have a strong element of challenge in them to the status quo of the world in which they happen – the Roman and Jewish rulers fail to see, or to stop, the birth of this “new king”.

The Word of God. Jesus is seen as God’s expression of himself. He had spoken through the prophets in the Old Testament, but now he speaks through a son, someone who in some way “embodies” his message. It’s not words, but the Word. Knowing God through a person is very different to knowing him in words – people are deep, subtle, responding in different ways to different circumstances, growing, learning and changing; they can’t be reduced to lists of rules and instructions. 

CELEBRATING ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS

ADVENT begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (not Dec 1). The colour of altar hangings, vestments etc. is purple (or blue in some traditions), and it is a penitential season, when the emphasis is on awareness of what needs to change in the world and in us.

During Advent we sing special Advent hymns, although inevitably Christmas hymns and celebrations creep into the Advent season!

Many churches use Advent candles – four candles for the four Sundays, plus a fifth lit at the first Communion service of Christmas. The Christmas candle is white, the others are either all red, or three purple and one pink (for the third Sunday in Advent- Gaudete, or “rejoicing” Sunday).

Other Advent traditions are the Advent candle, with 24 markings to burn through during December, Advent calendars and the Jesse tree, which uses symbols of Old Testament stories, told each day, to lead up to Christmas.

CHRISTMAS begins at the first celebration of Communion for Christmas. In many churches this happens on Christmas Eve, shortly before midnight (Midnight Mass). The altar hangings, vestments etc. are gold or white.

There is often a crib scene in the church (ours is put together at the Crib service on Christmas Eve afternoon).

The Christmas season in church lasts until CANDLEMAS, on Feb 2, the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It includes the feast of EPIPHANY on Jan 6, when we remember the visit of the Wise Men, and the weeks after that (sometimes called Epiphanytide) which focus on stories of people becoming aware of Jesus (Epiphany means manifestation, or showing).

CHRISTINGLES are a Moravian tradition, quite recently used in this country, often in aid of the Children’s Society; a Christingle service can take place at anytime during the Advent or Christmas seasons.