I have heard it said that a wise man was once confronted by one of his disciples. “Why is it?”, the young man wanted to know – “do you tell us stories without explaining them in detail?” “Well” replied the wise man “how would you like it if you went to buy a piece of fruit down at the market, and the shopkeeper took your money, then peeled the fruit in front of you – ate and enjoyed it – then handed you the peel?”
Yet since so many insist on wanting Christmas explained and defended, I am afraid that I am going to do just that. Please remember however I will try to leave the real tasty bit – the poetry – left unexplained for you to enjoy for yourself.
It seems almost impossible to take the Biblical versions of the first Christmas and construct a single, literal account without inconsistencies. Given for example that there was probably no one around to transcribe the meeting of Mary and the angel Gabriel or Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the exact wording of their conversations is probably not the point at issue- nor even that old conundrum of whether or not Mary was actually a Virgin – given that the term translated as Virgin from the prophecy has now been confirmed by the scholars to be “young girl” in the original.
But for those who claim to take the birth of Christ seriously there is a more important question. The key question is: in what way do the stories of the first Christmas help our understanding, our thinking and our behaviour? The point then of the fourth Sunday of Advent when we focus on the theme of Love – is that it is not so much that we are to admire Mary for her willingness to submit to God’s will in love – but rather the question of the degree to which we too are sufficiently inspired by what we read, to submit to the challenge of responding in love to the challenges we face today.
Before we look at that question let us face squarely and honestly the problems in the recorded accounts. That there should be inconsistencies should surprise no one. The writers who were recording Jesus’ birth were not themselves primary witnesses, and it was clear that some writers like Mark, John and Paul at least, simply bypassed his birth altogether and moved straight to the significance of his message. It is now reasonably well established that the earlier gospels which were recorded by more contemporary writers, like the Gospel of Thomas, never made it to the final selection of books of the Bible, and the even the earliest gospel of the four that did make the cut (the gospel of Mark) was written in Rome (possibly with the assistance of the Apostle Peter) several years after Jesus was crucified.
The writer of the gospel of Mark, is considered not to have met Jesus and certainly seems have virtually no possibility of witnessing Jesus’ birth. Like Paul, who is considered to have done most of his writing before the other gospel writers were underway, Mark simply seems to have ignored the birth stories in order to concentrate on the man and his message. By the time, some years later, Matthew and Luke were assembling their accounts there was more reason to want to talk about the birth of the Christ because, in writing to those who were now unable to meet Jesus in person, the readers would be interested in Jesus’ significance. Details that might shed light on the claim he was the awaited Messiah – in other words to show for example that he was the one predicted by the prophets, was born in the right place to be thought of as the Messiah – and that he was descended from David – all needed to be presented in an appropriate way.
I suspect what I now move to will open me in the eyes of some to a charge of heresy, but it is not a new observation to notice how the gospel accounts don’t match up.
If you insist on the literal truth of the gospel accounts there are awkward and glaring inconsistencies. If the two accounts of Jesus’ birth are not intended as a poetical presentation there are clear contradictions. Whereas Matthew has the details of the birth revealed to Joseph in a dream, Luke has the Annunciation made to Mary by an angel.
In two places in the New Testament the genealogy of Jesus son of Mary is mentioned. Matthew 1:6-16 and Luke 3:23-31. Each lists the ancestors of Joseph the CLAIMED husband of Mary and Step father of Jesus. The first one starts from Abraham (verse 2) all the way down to Jesus. The second from Jesus all the way back to Adam. The only common name to these two lists between David and Jesus is JOSEPH, How can the two lists be simultaneously true? And in any case how can Jesus have a genealogy traced through the male line when a good proportion of Muslims and many conservative Christians believe that Jesus had/has no human father.
According to Luke on the eighth day of Jesus’ life he was circumcised, on the fortieth day of his life he was presented to the temple in Jerusalem (both in accordance with the law) and having accomplished these Jewish family requirements they went back to their own city of Nazareth in Galilee. (Luke 2.39). Unfortunately despite the assurances of some of the televangelists and the other proponents of biblical inerrancy – at the time of these events, at least according to Matthew, Mary and Joseph had fled for their lives into Egypt to avoid the vengeful Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and that according to Matthew is where they remained until Herod had died and where they remained before returning to their family home in Bethlehem (not Nazareth) only transferring to Nazareth when they felt it was too dangerous to remain in Bethlehem. Certainly at the very least, Luke and Matthew cannot both be absolutely correct in their accounts and therefore literal inerrancy cannot apply to every verse of the Bible.
From a personal point of view I freely admit I find myself among those who consider the Virgin conception of Jesus most unlikely given what I have learnt about biology. I acknowledge that science only studies repeatable phenomena and I know that Jesus comes across as being unique – yet even if we turn instead to histories such as those in the gospel accounts I note enough doubts raised by inconsistencies to believe I must choose the miraculous version. I can respect that others have chosen otherwise.
There is of course an alternative way of reading the Christmas story based on the not unreasonable view that the story is intended as a powerful metaphor – even poetry -to signify the coming of Jesus as a very significant event for the history of the world which is certainly borne out by subsequent history.
The song still goes “The Virgin Mary had a baby boy…..” So how should we react?
We could of course react by venerating the memory of Mary. The Catholics claim that many millions of believers recite their version of the angel Gabriel’s greeting now best known as Ave Maria. “Hail Mary full of Grace” each week. We can understand Mary being reluctant to accept the greeting under the circumstances. This young girl described with the Greek term doulos meaning servant and according to some scholars I have read, probably no more than thirteen years old when betrothed was by tradition and the gospel accounts, and was however it came about, pregnant before marriage. Then, as now, this presents a familiar dilemma… a dilemma involving public humiliation and serious disgrace. And just remember that the Jewish law proscribed stoning to death for the girl found to be pregnant outside marriage.
Perhaps strangely to our modern way of thinking, the claim of virgin birth was not as unique in that time as would be the case today. Other religious leaders were also believed to have had a Virgin birth. For example Zororoaster (whose Persian followers may well have included those like the astrologer Wise men mentioned in the Bible) – was by tradition born of a Virgin – as too was claimed for some of the Roman Emperors of that age to justify their divine status. Nevertheless whatever Mary and Joseph believed may have happened, it is unlikely that prior to Jesus ministry they would have been believed by many others had they made the Virgin claim that first Christmas.
By tradition even in this more scientific age Mary’s status is still remarkably widely accepted as having conceived as a Virgin – and it may surprise many to learn that this tradition is possibly more strongly accepted in Islam than it is within the various branches of Christianity.
Yet even if we accept this, it does not address the question I raised earlier. I suggested that what we now believe about Jesus and his birth can be significant for us individually, but only if it makes a difference to our living and our attitudes in the here and now. In what way then does Mary’s birth of Jesus alter our life choices?
I have no particular view on how accurate the gospel account needs to be to retain credibility and worth, yet even if it if it is poetry it is still poetry with a gritty reality which gives the Jesus birth story impact and relevance in a less than perfect world. A census that even today requires people to return to the place of birth to be counted in places as they continue to be required in places like modern Turkey – regardless of the inconvenience – is a plausible setting for that Christmas story (even if no census of the exact right date is recorded by contemporary historians). A potentially nasty world which a young unwed mother can find to be an unfriendly place still resonates with our experiences today. Certainly there are the romantic symbols of a star, of wise men bringing gifts from the East, shepherds and angels, and these days these are further supplemented with the modern symbols of Christmas: decorations, of carols and coloured lights…but in the real world there are also those who would even slay infants to retain power. Love there may be – but it is love to be expressed in a world in which love remains in short supply, and a love that needs to be carefully guarded and shared lest it be totally submerged by the grubby realities which also characterise the world.
We have to be rather careful not to let the romantic and happy symbolism of Christmas dominate to the point where we forget that the world still needs the love which we claim first came down at Christmas. We also have to acknowledge the coming of Christ in history has not banished all that is evil and that unless there are those like ourselves who are prepared to be inspired by his coming to the point where they too can respond in love, that message of his coming will be lessened in impact.
In looking back we may choose to view Mary in different ways – but this view will always have the historical dimension. We may for example lament the fact that she was recorded as so poor and so lowly regarded at the time that Jesus’ birth had to take place in a shed with the animals – yet we are in effect, at best helpless spectators after the event with no power to have any effect on what happened to Mary. We can be surprised that this young girl, pregnant outside marriage, should have been thus treated regardless of the importance of her son to be, but here too we are just receiving the gospel account second hand. More significant is that we might however reflect that her son Jesus whose birth we will celebrate this coming Christmas came bearing a message about a more caring way for those who follow to treat one another. Putting it more plainly…. We do not have the unwed and pregnant Mary to care for, her story is now 2000 years in the past, yet we do have today’s unwed young mothers looking to folk like us us to see if Jesus message has in fact taken hold in our hearts.
Perhaps we in the protestant Churches are rather too casual in our acknowledgement of what Mary really stands for. Mary in her undoubted mother’s role as shaper of Jesus is actually the only supporter of Jesus mentioned at every stage of his life. There when he meets with Mary Magdalene, there at the foot of the Cross when the other disciples had deserted him … and afterwards a companion of John the divine, as the new Church was shaped. Having visited Mary’s chapel at Ephesus I am convinced she is accepted in her own right as a key figure in the story of the early Church. But I also want to suggest that rather than venerating her as a saint, we might better honour her name if we too were constant in our efforts to live in a way consistent with the gospel we claim to follow.
Mary is indeed a useful focus for love for this fourth Sunday in Advent. It is a love that has the potential to grow but only if there are those prepared to allow it expression.