In a year in which the Church we cherish has been shaken to the core,
what has the Christmas story have to offer our understanding of faith?
Firstly, do you really know the story of the birth of Jesus?
What a silly question. At this time of year, it is impossible to escape. Children remind us in their charming Christmas plays. Shopping centres play carols until we could scream. Television programmers dust off their 1950’s biblical dramas. Churches decorate cribs – the odd donkey even appears in the more adventurous parish church.
But how much of this story comes from the four gospels?
Let’s unwrap some of the shiny paper and ribbons and see what’s there.
Mark, the first gospel, doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth at all. His story begins with Jesus as an adult. Matthew and Luke tell the story but each from their own particular perspective – almost two different stories. John offers a soaring poem about the Word of God – but no birth.
Matthew tells the story of Joseph’s understandable disquiet about Mary’s pregnancy – the moment of birth is almost an aside. He gives us the visit of the Magi following a mysterious star, a wicked king with designs on killing the infant, and the refugee escape of the family to Egypt.
Luke tells the story of the young girl of Nazareth being visited by an angel; her answer of YES to a puzzling and unknown future; an elderly cousin Elizabeth and her future son, John; 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 subsequently lost.
Each of the stories are not short on disquiet and ambiguity. 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 and served up for breakfast on Christmas morning.
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.
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, 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 take the wrapping off some of 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 seems to be that out of this sorrowful 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.
And then, just to add more fruit to this Christmas pudding, there is the history of the followers of Jesus. These are no prettier than the stories of Israel. The first disciples were wracked with the realisation that they had abandoned Jesus on Calvary. Years later this church they formed set up the Inquisition, it gave us popes who sold ecclesiastical favours and who were sexually licentious. The churches, despite their catholicity and holiness, have perennially been narrow, elitist and male-dominated and never been fully free of self-interest – and today we face the hideous reality of the sexual abuse scandal. The same dance of grace and sin.
It was from this background that the story emerged of a young homeless couple’s, baby born in the filth and the 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. Nor should we. We tend to idealise and spiritualise the story – understandably, I suppose. No need to be a grinch and take the fun and beauty out of this ancient story. But remember it is a tale told by a Church populated by struggling, bruised, confused, and searching human beings – it was ever thus.
As well as a time for celebrating love, friendship and family, Christmas asks us to be open to recognise our own brokenness, to find the sacred in the most unlikely places, even inside the darkest caves of our life. Within a year in which many of our most trusted institutions have been trashed, Leaders facing disgrace. The church we cherish shaken to its very core. Parliament in tatters. Even the games we play exposed to lies and cheating. Not to mention the epidemic of mindless violence in many parts of the world or the questions we face as a tidal wave of refugees simply look for a safe home. Is there no limit to the darkness? This is no time to reduce the story of the birth of a child to a sentimental carol or a card to friend.
When you untie the ribbons from the story, drop the tinsel and unwrap the shiny paper, Christmas is about light being seen inside of darkness. The miracle of grace shining through brokenness, in the person of a tiny baby.
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 human – a condition of darkness and light, of both great ambiguity and profound grace.
Perhaps we should listen to those timeless stories again.
Tony Doherty is a Catholic Priest. He publishes a blog ‘Breaking Bread Together’.