What's True about Christmas?
A Process Appreciation of Bible Readings
for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
Luke 2:1-14; Matthew 2:1-12
By Bruce G. Epperly
Pastor of South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA.
The Christmas narratives present us with a set of what process theologians describe as provocative propositions. Alfred North Whitehead asserts that “it is more important that a proposition be interesting than true.” He adds that “the importance of truth is that it adds to the interest.” This is certainly true of the Christmas stories. The biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth have been subject to deconstructionist commentaries over the last two hundred years by New Testament scholars and religious leaders and even Pope Benedict has weighed in on the accuracy of our Christmas pageants. No doubt their judgments are factually accurate; but are they interesting? Do they add to the zest of life or lead to personal transformation? There is a deeper truth from the Christmas stories that can never be captured by scholarship alone.
Beyond Scholarly and Biblical Literalism
Reflecting what happens at many Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, let's focus on the two birth narratives, with a word about the other scriptural passages. Although this year’s lectionary reading is Luke 2:1-14, I will add Matthew 2:1-12 since it will be read in the course of most services this year. From the point of view of most scholars, these passages are historically inaccurate, composed for theological reasons to present Jesus’ uniqueness as a world savior; but they sure are “interesting,” and I would dare say more true to human experience than the armchair deconstructionism of the academy. Insightful and inspirational preaching needs to avoid the fundamentalisms of both scholars and biblical literalists to discern and share the truth of Christianity’s most well-known stories (the healings of Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection, and Christmas).
Revelation amid Relational Brokenness
Isaiah sets the stage. The prophet’s words to a broken nation speak to the waywardness of every historical period. There are times in which persons and nations seem to stagger to and fro with no hope or guiding light. This was true in the time of the defeat and political exile of Judah and Israel; it was true in the time of Jesus’ birth; and it is true in our time of national polarization and global unrest. It can also be true as we face our own inner demons of aging, relational brokenness, addiction, anxiety, fear, and mortality. After a period of being spiritually, politically, and economically lost, the people are now rejoicing: a light has shined and the way ahead is being revealed.
Six years ago when Barack Obama was running for President of the United States, I recall a bumper sticker that read “Got hope?” Isaiah would ask the same question of his first listeners and us. Isaiah’s hope is also in an extraordinary spiritual-political leader. Isaiah dreams of a child who will lead the nation out of the wilderness into a promised land. This child will bring peace to the world: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This child, Christians believe and Handel sings forth, is the babe of Bethlehem, Jesus our Healer and Savior. Some may question the accuracy of the connection of Isaiah and the Gospel narratives, but the Gospel propositions are interesting, provocative, and spiritually true.
Localized in the Birth of a Baby
While we may never know the exact details of Jesus’ birth, Luke 2 presents the image of a pilgrim family, temporarily without shelter, and in desperately seeking a place for the birth of their child. No one would have noticed them as unique among the many travelers that evening. They were citizens of an oppressed people, compelled to take an inconvenient and life-threatening journey and subject to the whims of forces beyond themselves. Soon they would have to flee for their lives as political immigrants (dare we say “illegal” or “undocumented”), depending on the kindness of strangers for their survival. Yet, God’s universal energy and power – God’s vision for the ages - is localized in the birth of this baby.
Process theology asserts both the universality and the intimacy of divine revelation. God’s presence is variable: in the dynamic call and response of life, God can choose to be more present in some places than others. This is not supernatural intervention, or an alien visitation to our planet, but the reflection of divine decision-making in relationship to global and communal history and personal decision-making. The Christmas stories mark both Mary and Joseph as particularly sensitive to divine possibilities and their sensitivities opened the door for a quantum leap of divine disclosure to them and in their child Jesus.
Salvation at the Margins of Life
Luke sees divinity bursting forth in a stable and revelation given to shepherds, people at the margins of society. There is nothing romantic about the “real lives of real shepherds,” they lived from paycheck to paycheck, dwelling outside in all weather conditions, were a bit shiftless in the public eye, and were seen as lower class by polite society. Yet, they receive an angelic visitation, which opens their eyes to a new possibility for themselves and human life. Dwelling in darkness, they have seen a great light. God’s salvation comes at the margins of life, making the margins the frontiers of a world to come.
Matthew’s Gospel focuses on the high and mighty in his account of the visit of the magi. Unlike the shepherds, they have everything going for them – wealth, education, spiritual erudition, and social standing – except for the fact they are foreigners. Herod’s court is stunned that the Jewish religious leaders missed the star in the sky and that foreigners would come telling them – the “true” repositories of spiritual wisdom – that the Holy One (the Messiah) is being born in their midst. Despite their wealth and education, the magi are also outsiders, they are unclean in the estimation of orthodox Jews, and yet God speaks to them, guiding them night and day by a wondrous star. They reveal the wisdom of Titus, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”
Matthew’s story ends with the coming of darkness amid God’s great light. The magi (wise ones) are warned in a dream not to return to Herod’s court. God is revealed in both darkness and light, in nocturnal messages and illuminating moments. God’s moment by moment and grand visions are constantly emerging in our daily experience, but we seldom listen. The magi listen to their dreams, and go home by another route, buying time for the Holy Family to escape.
Transformed by a Star and Dream
Today’s readings inspire our imaginations. They go beyond the texts themselves, not to mention unimaginative doctrinal and scholarly readings of the texts, to reveal God’s movements at margins of life. We rejoice in the stories because they are pregnant with possibilities and see creative transformation emerging from the concrete grittiness of life. Factual or not, they present the truth – a light in the darkness, a child as an image of hope, the loving persistence of parents, revelation where we least expect, and lives transformed by a star and a dream.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. on Cape Cod. He is the author of thirty books, including his most recent books, Adventurous Advent: Days of Awe and Wonder and Letters to my Grandson: Gaining Wisdom from a Fresh Perspective. He may be contacted for conversation and engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org.