“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.” -Luke 1:78-79
The most wonderful time of the year is upon us. As the universal Church ponders the mystery of the Incarnation it is highly appropriate to reflect about what this central focal point of our faith really means. During the past year, my own theological views have undergone considerable revision. Thanks to the writings of Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the renowned Fr. Hans Küng I have been exposed to a new understanding of God and a radically new approach to the Christian life.
The richest kernel of wisdom that has been received from these theologians is being able to understand that not all accounts in the Bible can be taken as being historically or scientifically infallible – even those that have been perceived as being foundational to Christianity. To the early Church, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ushered in a new and definitive beginning for the human race – as God was communicated in a unique way, for all, in the person of Christ. Conveying this sentiment was accomplished, as most religions of the time did, through mythical tales that employed certain symbols to establish and underline the truth that was being emphasized.
For most Christians, to consider the accounts contained in the Gospels that detail the birth of Jesus as fictional is indeed a revolutionary concept. In the opinions of many it is tantamount to heresy. However, as Scripture is analyzed, it is plain to see that the fantastic birth narratives chronicled in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels never formed the core of the Christian tradition. The first reference to the birth of Christ in the New Testament comes from one of the apostle Paul’s epistles, written around the middle of the first century C.E. In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul details of how, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4-5).
Writing at a time before any of the canonical Gospels had been composed, one of the greatest pillars of the early Church appears to be ignorant of any knowledge of angelic throngs, wise men from the East, mobile stars, or miraculous conceptions that accompanied the birth of Jesus. Paul describes it matter-of-factly, simply stating that He was “born of a woman.” No supernatural phenomena characterized the event. If they had, wouldn’t they have proven worthy of mention?
The oldest of the four Gospels (that of Mark – written twenty years after Paul’s epistles) never mentions the birth of Jesus but begins immediately with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke’s Gospels (which were largely based on the material found in Mark) were written at least five to fifteen years after the composition of Mark. The annunciation and birth narratives of Jesus that Christians have become so accustomed to are unique to these two Gospels. Even John’s Gospel, which highlights and emphasizes the divinity of Christ more than any other, fails to mention any incident of a miraculous birth – only stating, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us” -John 1:1,14
If the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke can be considered an independent development within the early Christian tradition, and not a foundational one, how did they come about and what do they mean for the life of the Church today?
First, it must be understood that the concept of a virgin birth need not be as fundamental as it has been for the past two millenia of Christian history. The origins of this belief are usually based on a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, where God promises that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). For centuries, this verse was seen as substantiating the idea that the exact manner and circumstances of the coming of the Messiah had been foretold long ago in Sacred Scripture. However, when the question of translation is examined another picture is painted. The version of Isaiah that the author of Matthew’s Gospel used was a Greek rendering of the original Hebrew text. In Greek, the word “parthenos” does indeed describe a virgin in the sexual sense. But in Hebrew, the word used concerning the woman is “almah” which does not mean a virgin, but rather a “young woman”, married or unmarried. Thus, the assertion that the virgin birth of Jesus was foreshadowed in the Old Testament is completely unfounded.
This tradition probably arose to emphasize God as being the source of the unique and irrevocable call that impelled all that Jesus of Nazareth said and did throughout His life. Portraying Jesus as not being born as the result of human conception placed His very existence not within the fallible limits of frail human beings, but rather among the infinite possibilities of the Divine. As the Gospel of Luke phrased it, a new “Dawn from on high” had broken upon the horizon of human history, that would leave it forever and irreparably changed.
As the early Christian community reflected on this mystery, more and more attention would come to be focused on the biological state of Mary’s virginity rather than what that virginity ultimately represented theologically. Analogies were constructed between the Old and New Testaments that compared Eve’s role in humanity’s fall from grace with Mary’s chosen status as the spotless vessel to bear the One to redeem mankind. From that point on, Mary, the mother of Jesus would ever be attached to the word Virgin. This quality, more than any other, would be what distinguished Mary in Christian theology. Not her courage or the maternal dedication of her faith, but the fact alone that she never took part in sexual intercourse with a man. Seeing sexual expression as a necessary evil that was inaugurated after the dreaded Fall in the Garden of Eden , early Christian theologians frowned upon viewing anything positive about the topic. The virginity of Mary was the perfect way to depict the unrealistic ideal towards which all faithful Christians should aspire – celibacy. Such actions would continue to erect a tradition of theologically denigrating human sexuality. Even worse, such a trend would deny women any positive role models to emulate, aside from those who had chosen the path of clerically endorsed celibacy. If Mary was never a virgin, how enriching or useful is such a doctrine for the women of the twenty-first century?
Another staple of the traditional Christmas story is that, spurred on by a census issued by Caesar Augustus, the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph travelled over one-hundred miles from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral town of Bethlehem. The little town of Bethlehem is the subject of countless sentimental carols, but has anyone ever given any thought to whether it was actually the real birthplace of Jesus?
In terms of historical accuracy, there are no records of any such census being taken in Judea by the Roman Empire that would have forced families to travel back to the towns of their ancestors in order to be accounted for. The Romans kept meticulous records of such undertakings, and an event as unique as this would surely have been found in the annals of some chronological ledger that kept track of the activities of the Empire in its various provinces. Josephus, nor any other contemporary historian ever makes mention of the account. Logistically speaking, such a census would be a civic nightmare! Why order the population of a given region to scatter to numerous different sites to be counted when they all could gather at one central location?
Bethlehem was the legendary King David’s hometown. Making a connection between such a renowned figure in Israel’s history would remove beyond all doubt the legitimacy of Jesus as the Messiah that had been promised generations ago. And what would conveniently place the Holy Family within the City of David? A census. Thus, it must be admitted that the arduous journey of Mary and Joseph, that has characterized part of the charm and timeless appeal of the Christmas story to countless generations of Christians, is most likely not history, but rather, poetic license taken to substantiate the early Christian community’s view that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah. This promised Anointed One had to possess some connection to the legacy of Israel’s most illustrious hero, therefore the fictional census of Luke’s Gospel serves to establish this bond.
If one wishes to consult the guidance of history, it is safe to say that Nazareth was probably the birthplace of Jesus.
In the same way, there can be no historical reference found that documents the slaughter of the innocents under the order of King Herod that is found in the Gospel of Matthew. Just as the author of Luke’s Gospel had a subliminal method behind the creation of his narrative of the birth of Jesus so did the composer of Matthew’s Gospel. The author of Matthew was writing to a largely Jewish audience, so it was imperative to enumerate connections between Old Testament themes and the life of Jesus in his Gospel. Throughout Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the new and definitive fulfillment of Moses – one of the Torah’s most prominent figures. So think, where else in Scripture does a tyrannical king order the slaughter of a small cluster of innocent children? In the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story is told of how the Pharaoh of Egypt orders the annihilation of all male Hebrew children under the age of two for fear of an uprising that would topple his reign. The mother of Moses places him in a basket and sets him afloat upon the Nile River. The boy finds his way to the palace of the Pharaoh where he is taken and raised by the king’s daughter. When one puts the two stories side by side, it is obvious that they are almost identical in scope – particularly considering how Jesus avoids detection by the forces of Herod.
If none of these accounts can be taken as factually accurate what does this say about the Christmas story we have all learned as children?
The real question to consider is: what do the traditional Christmas accounts we have all been taught tell us about God?
Christianity has always held that God descended the heights of heaven, and took on flesh, to save mankind from its sinfulness. God was an external being that was completely Other, reigning from another far-off realm of consciousness, Who needed to be placated by humanity’s compliance and subservience.
But what if God is not a being, but rather a Reality, a Force, a Presence that is at the heart of all that pervades the earth and the universe?
If so, then God never had to come down from heaven. The reality of God was never detached from this plane of existence. Realizing this precious truth, we can see what the birth of Jesus really signals – hope is never far away because God can be discovered in the deepest expression of our own humanity. During Midnight Mass, when we kneel to honor the consummation of the Incarnation during the recitation of the Creed, we should do so not in austere humility – taken aghast at the prospect of God deeming humans worthy of enjoying His presence – but rather in sheer joy, adoration, and gratitude at the thought that God can be discovered so intimately within each one of us, and through our actions. This is what the Incarnation is fundamentally about: that the very essence and nature of the Divine was communicated to the world in the life of a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. This same Reality, can be discovered within every human person, and in all living things, if we only become aware and appreciative of the grace of the presence of God.
Even if the Christmas stories that mythologically tried to convey this sentiment are not factually true, this does not deprive them of their meaning. Through these intricate and stimulating parables we see that the reality of God is not only destined for the learned or the opulent, but can be cherished and found among the most meager of circumstances – in the company of shepherds or the stark simplicity of a manger. Even if Mary was not a virgin, how much more profound an insight would it be that the Divine can be communicated in all of life’s endeavors, especially during sexual intercourse between two people who are genuinely in love.
All of these points are what the authors of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels tried to emphasize, that the Divine can be located within the human sphere of reference, and that Hope is discovered not outside, but within the recesses of our humanity. This new beginning for the world that was offered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is sorely needed amidst the challanges, sadness, and uncertanties of today’s world. Whether it be the bleak state of the globe’s economic affairs, war and violence that continue to plague numerous lands, or poverty and injustice that are made manifest even in our own nation, the planet Earth is much in need of a cosmic reboot to revitalize its fortunes. Yet, for anyone who has committed themselves to the cause of Christ, it is possible to bring such hope alive for countless souls. Doing so means not by assenting to doctrinal or dogmatic rubrics, but rather by living out and making evident the message of the One who Christians acclaim as the “Light of the World.”
I extend wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all who happen upon this posting! As food for reflection, it seemed appropriate to leave the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose writings have been dominantly instrumental in reshaping my views of Scripture and its meaning for our lives:
“God is not a heavenly judge. God is a life force expanding inside humanity until that humanity becomes barrier-free. This was the God revealed in the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. It was a new God definition that shifted our old view of an external force into something found at the center of life. The being of this God calls us to be; the life of this God calls us to live; the love of this God calls us to love. Jesus lived the life of God. That is why we proclaim that in His life the Source of life was seen. In His love the Source of love was seen. In His courage, which enabled Him to be fully human, the Ground of All Being was seen. That is the experience that the word ‘Incarnation’ was created to communicate. It is not a doctrine to be believed so much as it is a presence to be experienced.”