Lectionary sermon for Advent 4a 22 December 2013 on Matthew 1:18-25
Making Sense of Christmas
The profound influence of Christianity in the shaping of belief systems over the last two millennia has made it inevitable that Jesus’ coming should have been celebrated in such a wide variety of ways. Some of these have been bizarre in the extreme.
The recent efforts of an Australian barrister, David Richards to decorate his house with enough Christmas lights to reclaim the world record he had previously had to surrender to a New York couple was impressive if only because his display of a sea of half a million twinkling lights held in place with an estimated 47 km of string has at least made his Canberra home a tourist curiosity. This comparatively new custom of festooning houses with a sea of Christmas lights is now sometimes seen as such an essential part of the preparations for Christmas that there have been instances where neighbors have been known to pressurize newcomers in certain suburban areas to decorate their houses to conform . Whether or not such light displays are helpful to the Christian message or in any way relate to what the gospel writers are attempting to convey is a moot point.
On the other hand we probably all feel at least slightly possessive of whatever personal customs and formula understandings of Christmas are a part of our traditions – sometimes to the extent we will actively resist any attempts to improve our understanding. For example Christmas tableaux and Christmas card illustrations typically place the manger in a stable, surround the scene with animals, and if wise men are called for, of course there must be three. Even the standard Christmas tree, again with absolutely no justification from the Bible, is now considered almost obligatory in many family homes. The fact that the gospels fail to confirm such detail does not stop the false memory becoming a key part of our tradition.
In some ways getting anything like a clear picture of exactly what happened that first Christmas is thwarted by the gospel writers themselves. The authors of the gospels were almost certainly handicapped by having little access to eyewitness accounts, and writing years after the events would have made it very difficult to sort out how much was hearsay and how much was accurate. The mismatch in detail between Luke and Matthew on such matters are probably largely due to the varying sources they were obliged to work with. The earliest gospel, that of Mark, leaves out the birth stories altogether, while John prefers to use a poetic – almost cosmic approach.
Both Matthew and Luke seem more intent on describing what happened, but since their accounts include inescapable contradictions even to the extent of providing different genealogies – this should make us suspect that they are each telling their version of the story to highlight different understandings as to what the birth meant.
There are also problems in trying to reconcile birth details with other measures of reality. A massacre of children may seem in character from what we know of Herod, yet it does seem strange that contemporary historians of the time who noted many other details of his reign should have missed such a dramatic event. Similarly the nearest census which gives us a date for the birth apparently did not happen while Herod was still alive. For modern scholars who try to reconcile modern understandings of conception and birth with the Bible accounts, Virgin birth seems to them to be highly implausible. Certainly a good number of followers of traditional forms of Christianity are still apparently committed to the Virgin birth story, yet a growing number of religious leaders are now talking of symbolic rather than literal meaning. Nevertheless it should be stressed that the ancient creeds are firmly in place and somewhat to the bewilderment of those familiar with the scientific explanations for conception, whole branches of the Christian church hold to what many critics say is out-dated superstition.
If nothing else this is a good reminder that knowledge in religion is always more than current state of the art science, and that tradition, poetry and a sense of wonder and mystery overlay and shape our realities.
When it comes to Matthew and Luke on the topic of the Virgin birth, rather than laughing at the gospel writers for their apparent naivety, it is also worth reminding ourselves, that to those in that age who had no way of knowing any different, not only was Virgin birth a plausible happening for special people, there were even written histories of the day confirming that it had happened in a number of other instances.
Some histories of the time claimed virgin birth for both Caesar Augustus and Alexander the Great, both of whom were assumed to have the god, Jupiter as progenitor. We might also note in passing that both of them as well as a number of the Greek Kings had been also described with the title of Saviour of the World. We also know that there was an additional reason why Matthew would favour the notion of Mary being a Virgin. Matthew – clearly a Greek scholar, would have as his text of Isaiah the then two hundred year old Greek translation which had changed the original Hebrew which said Almah meaning young girl to the Greek word Parthenos meaning Virgin. We have no way of knowing in this instance if Matthew was treating this as symbolism to show that Jesus was special and at least the equivalent of Caesar Augustus or whether he was genuinely unaware that the original Hebrew quotation gave a rather more prosaic meaning.
When a group of modern scholars were tasked with coming up with a more exact translation it so happens that they decided to correct the Isaiah quotation in Matthew and turn the Virgin back to young girl. When their final offering of what they called the Revised Standard Version was circulated in 1951 and 1952, it horrified traditional Church folk and both the Catholics and the Anglicans insisted that the offending phrase be changed back to Virgin, and once again a revision took place. One Baptist minister took a rather more direct and dramatic course of action by incinerating the RSV with a blow torch in front of his Sunday congregation. (We might note in passing that this spectacular act did not have quite the desired effect in that members of his congregation were reportedly so intrigued that they promptly went out and bought their own copies to see what the fuss was all about).
It is not my place to challenge the findings of the translators or arbitrate on the protests of the critics of the translation. While I am quite happy to admit a personal view that Mary was unlikely to have been a Virgin in a literal sense, my only concern is that we have the grace to listen to one another before leaping to judgment. However, if instead of focusing on the so called facts that that draw the fire of the critics with apparent contradictions and historical puzzles, if instead, we were to look at the symbolism we suddenly start to notice points we might otherwise miss. While we can delight in stumbling across weaknesses in the Bible records ultimately it is not what Luke or Matthew makes of Jesus and his coming that will matter, it is what we ourselves might notice that will set the stage for our reactions to Christmas.
For example if we were to notice that Matthew is entering the male dominated traditional exclusive Jewish belief by setting out a genealogy for Jesus which, counter to custom, includes not only four female names, but also some known to be gentiles, we might start realizing we are faced with a Jesus who is not the exclusive preserve of Judaism. If we notice the extreme respect Matthew attributes to Mary’s status, he is underlining an attitude which Jesus will later make an essential part of his teaching. We might echo this respect by according her the status of Virgin, but if not, we still have to come up with an alternative to show we respect the female role? When it comes to Joseph, Matthew shows a man who is prepared to put compassion for his betrothed wife ahead of the rather brutal and unforgiving laws in Deuteronomy. Is this the same compassion that will guide our attitudes to those whom society would judge?
Matthew, despite his violent and harsh setting for his story of the coming child amid righteous rigid laws, facing the cruelty of a brutal ruler and having a humble and uncertain start in life, manages to inject just enough mystery and magic into his story line to remind us that Jesus is about to start a life in which true value will be found. To argue over which of his statements of mystery are justified by translation is to miss his purpose.
And yes, this Christmas no doubt there has been tinsel, and supermarket jingles…. and twinkling lights in the night. But above all we might remember that the show of Christmas is not where the real relevance lies. Certainly it is a birth we will celebrate but the child of promise will not stay as a child. The reality we face in the coming weeks and months ahead calls for a child who will grow up to an adult Jesus, just as we too will need to take the starting principles he offers and find what it will mean to have them live in the complexities and even the dangers of our adult lives.