Christmas is the celebration of a story. A story told in the gospels by two storytellers – Matthew and Luke. It’s a tale told and retold, and often so badly that, should the original storytellers be alive today, I could imagine them squirming.
A few weeks ago an Irish priest came up with an idea, deliciously eccentric, that the church should cancel the December celebration and move it to another day. Perhaps he was listening to our Australia Day debate?
Lovely old carols, he argued, play through our shopping centres and assault our ears like velvet jackhammers. They become simply the soundtrack of frantic gift-buying. People spend money on gifts they can’t afford for others who neither need or want them, all to the tune of The Little Drummer Boy.
But before we act on his cancellation, let’s look at the actual story told in the gospel again.
Do we really know it? And how much of our popular retelling actually comes from the four gospels?
Mark, the first gospel-writer, doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth at all! His story begins with Jesus as an adult. Matthew and Luke tell the story of the birth but each from their own particular perspective – two entirely different stories. John offers a soaring poem about the Word of God – but no birth.
Matthew begins by describing Joseph’s understandable disquiet about the yet-to-be-married Mary’s pregnancy – the moment of birth is almost an aside. He recounts the visit of the exotic Magi following a mysterious star; a wicked king with designs on killing the infant; and finally the escape of the family to Egypt – refugees from their own land.
Luke tells the story of a young girl of Nazareth being visited by an angel; her answer of yes to a puzzling and unknown future; a visit to an elderly cousin Elizabeth also pregnant with child; Mary’s journey to Bethlehem; the birth of her baby attended by the farm animals; the shepherds and the angels; the circumcision; and later the boy Jesus is presented in the Temple and finally lost by seemingly careless parents.
So where does all this leave us?
Simple stories are remembered better than complex ones. But sometimes they miss the subtleties. So, over time, the remarkable differences between these gospel stories have been scrambled together into one homogenised omelette to be served up for breakfast on Christmas morning. No wonder we have some form of collective indigestion.
But there is more.
Matthew begins his story with an endless list of mostly strange names, the genealogy of Jesus – a sort of first century ancestry.com. (Luke has his own – following another line of genealogy.)
Remember the (very male) chant – Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob, Jacob fathered Judah, Judah fathered Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez fathered Hezon, Hezon fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab… and so on.
This is about the place that I usually drop off to sleep.
This genealogy, which we frequently ignore as being too boring, is a remarkable story showing that the family of Jesus arose from a line that included quite dubious and colourful characters, as disreputable as a group of drunken uncles at a Christmas dinner. If you drill down into these stories you find liars, murderers, prostitutes, power-grabbers, corrupt officials, sinners of every sort – humanity at its worst. Jacob did steal his brother’s birthright. Judah did sleep with his daughter-in-law. David did commit adultery and murder to cover it up. No wonder we protect the kiddies from this part of the Christmas story.
The moral behind the genealogy is the same as the story of the birth – from the reality of this human saga emerges a miracle of grace.
That’s not the whole story, of course. There were woman and men of great vision and immense courage; passionate searchers. There was the sublime poetry of Isaiah, the determined leadership of Moses, the courage of prophets like Elijah who spoke truth to power, and the delicate wisdom of the psalms. And then there were the gentle unacknowledged battlers, often people of immense grace. Such solid honest characters have never been absent from the pages of history.
‘Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared’, Anne Lamott wisely observes, ‘even those who seem to have it all together’.
It was from this background that the story emerged of a young homeless couple’s baby born in the filth and stench of an animal shelter – a baby who would soon be part of a refugee family looking for a home.
The Christmas story, as told in the gospels, never avoids the gritty reality of genuine human lives. It never whitewashes its history like some pretty little television drama.
Nor should we.
We tend to idealise and spiritualise the story and sing gentle songs about it – understandably, I suppose. But remember – it is a tale told by a Church populated by screwed up, broken and scared human beings – it was ever thus. Battlers searching for some deeper meaning to their life.
So, far-off Irish Father, let’s not be too hasty to shift Christmas away from the trees, the tinsels and the carols. We need our rituals. We all have a congenital need to celebrate, pure and simple. There are seasons in life. And we need a season meant precisely for enjoyment, for family and friends, for good food and good drink. We need to park our prudence for a few hours and live life as if the ‘good news’ is real.
It’s too easy to forget that. The word gospel means ‘good news’.
The Christmas story is about the birth of a child who lives and dies bringing a message which some of us believe has deepened forever our appreciation of what it means to be genuinely, unmistakably human. Not perfect, not ignoring our scars, not sweeping the reality of our lives under the carpet. The biblical storytellers never dodged the reality facing the young parents. Neither should we.
Let’s get the story right by all means. But don’t forget the party.
Tony Doherty is a ‘retired’ Catholic priest