Do you know the story of the birth of Jesus?
What a silly question!
At this time of year, it is impossible to escape it.
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 more adventurous parish churches.
But how much of this story comes from the four gospels?
Let’s unwrap some of the shiny paper and see what’s really inside.
Mark, the writer of the first gospel, doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth at all. His story begins with Jesus as an adult. John offers a soaring poem about the Word of God – but no birth. Matthew and Luke tell the story of the nativity, but each from their own particular perspective.
Matthew tells of Joseph’s understandable disquiet about Mary’s pregnancy, but 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 an angel visiting the young Mary of Nazareth and her faithful acceptance of a puzzling and unknown future; of the girl Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth and her future son, John; of Mary’s journey to Bethlehem and the birth of her baby attended by the farm animals; of shepherds and angels; of the baby’s circumcision; and later, of how the boy Jesus is presented in the Temple and subsequently lost.
Intriguing accounts and even more intriguing anomalies. But where do they 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 heavily edited – and romanticised – story.
But wait! There’s more. Matthew actually 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 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, more disreputable than 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 – if I might stretch myself to suggest one – seems to be that out of this sorrowful saga is born a miracle of grace.
That’s not the whole story, of course. Before the nativity, there were women and men of vision and 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.
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. Nor should we. We tend to idealise and spiritualise the story – understandably, I suppose. There’s no need to be a total grinch and take the fun, beauty and romance entirely out of the story, but remember – it is a tale told by a Church populated by struggling, bruised, confused and searching human beings. It was ever thus.
Today we need to go no further than honestly face the sea of sexual abuse stories and the damage this has caused in the lives of so many.
Christmas asks us to be open to recognising the sacred in the commonplace, even inside the darkest corners of our lives – the bombed-out cities, families in refugee detention centres, and the marginalised with little food and water, struggling to survive. On Manus Island, in Beirut, in Paris, in Nigeria. In a little boy washed up on a Turkish beach.
Is there no limit to the darkness?
When you untie the ribbons from the story, drop the tinsel and unwrap the shiny paper, Christmas is about a light being seen through the darkness of a very bleak world. It’s about the miracle of grace shining through such brokenness, in the person of a tiny baby.
Monsignor Tony Doherty is parish priest at St Mary Magdalene, Rose Bay.