So baby Jesus. No bait and switch on this deal, just know right up front that this blog is about baby Jesus.
The Bible is a good place to start concerning the “reason for the season” right? We’re essentially two days and a few hours and minutes away from the start of the first Christmas Eve service at Grace and at a plethora of other faith communities across the nation, so it’s probably time to focus in on the primary reason we’ve done all this stuff since oh, for some, the beginning of October.
The first gospel to be written, Mark, doesn’t have a baby Jesus story. No donkeys, or singing angels on high, or rejecting Innkeepers, or shepherds in cute bathrobes keeping watch, or an unmarried couple ready to give birth. The gospel of Mark starts with John the Baptist preparing the way for an adult Jesus. Jesus comes out into the wilderness, is baptized, John gets arrested and Jesus goes to Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14, NRSV).
It seems Mark’s baby Jesus story simply says we need to put our big girl and big boy boots on and get on with living the way the son of God showed us. Love God and love our neighbors as ourselves – not a bad message at Christmastime.
Then there’s the gospel of John, you know, the one called the “synoptic problem”? John’s gospel has the least amount of stories about Jesus in common with any of the other three. So guess what? No Christmas card baby Jesus stories. For John it’s about light overcoming darkness and about a living Word: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God… the Word became flesh and lived among us….” (John 1:1,14, NRSV).
It seems John’s baby Jesus story simply says that when we’re wondering who God is and what God is about, we simply need to look at Jesus’ life as God’s word and seek to live that way. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another” (John 13:34). Hmmm, seems to be a variation on a theme.
Then there’s the gospel of Matthew, thank heavens, finally a baby Jesus birth story. Of course it’s only five verses – well, 8 if we’re generous – and is really about Joseph having a visit in a dream from an angel about his contractually betrothed fiancé, Mary, being with child and it not being his. Not really Christmas card material. The angel dream visit was pretty important actually, because by Deuteronomic law, Joseph should have dragged her and her partner in crime to the city gates and had them stoned to death (Deut. 22:23-24, NRSV). Um, yeah, Merry Christmas!
Oh, but wait! Matthew has the Magi part of the story – I love that part! (Matthew 2:1-12). They follow a star and bring baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Without them, we wouldn’t have all the gift buying and wrapping and giving and receiving, so thank heavens they showed up (quite literally). Of course there’s that whole part where because of them, Herod becomes aware and paranoid about a new “king” being born in his region and mandates that all male children under the age of two be murdered, so Mary and Joseph have to take off toward Egypt to keep Jesus, the son of God and salvation of the world, alive. I guess we should be glad Egypt was willing to receive undocumented immigrants looking for safety from destructive political leaders.
Then there’s the gospel of Luke. Huge sigh of relief! This is the Christmas card Christmas pageant version. And it’s a good 40 verses in chapter two, and we can even include chapter one because it has the miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents of John the Baptist, in their very old age, and Mary’s visit with the Angel after which she sings her “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV). The Magnificat does include rejoicing that God brought “down the powerful from their thrones, lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (v. 53).
That’s a little disturbing, given the presents I purchased for my nephew and his spouse and my three great-nephews. But I’m guessing that doesn’t count as a sign of being rich or powerful since I also bought a goat and donated money for dinners for people in need at our Alternative Gift Fair in November. I assume the manger was filled with fresh hay for baby Jesus, and that the cattle and sheep and such were all fairly hygenic and respectfully went outside if they had to take care of any business. That’s sorta not my experience with the cattle in our barn when I was growing up, but hey, I wasn’t baby Jesus *snort* so animals probably were on different behavior around him than around me.
I don’t know, is looking too realistically at the birth of Jesus in the four gospel stories really worth it this time of year? Isn’t it better simply to assume it was the way we wanted it to be, that it didn’t really have any political or social or economic or behavioral ramifications either during the chapter in history when he was born, or even today? And if we make it just a nice story that gives us an excuse to treat one another more kindly and purchase presents for those we love and give a little more generously to groups serving those in greatest need, isn’t that enough?
I don’t know, is it? Maybe that’s a question with which we all are left to wrestle in our own ways during this Holy-Day celebration, and maybe even wrestle with after our Holy-Day celebrations are over… or not.