These are my thoughts for the First Sunday after Christmas. May the coming year be blessed and safe for you and your family.
A few days ago I read a comment somewhere (and I cannot recall where that was) that said that the three wise men couldn’t have been that wise. They knew they were looking for a new king and the one thing that they shouldn’t have done is gone to King Herod and ask where the new born child was. It was this part of their trip that brings about the “killing of the innocents” in today’s Gospel reading. (1)
But the problem with this logic is that the wise men did not understand the nature of the Christ Child. As astronomers (yes, I know they were actually astrologers but there wasn’t much of a distinction between the two fields at that time), the Magi were more interested in the stars and what the stars could tell us than they were interested in the political overtones to their observations. To them, a new king was being born and kings were born in palaces and amongst the elite of the nation. That was how it was where they probably came from and they assumed that was the case in other countries as well. It’s as if we looked at today’s presidential candidates and assumed that because one was a governor, he must have authority and power because the governor of the state we live in actually does have power and authority. That is not always the case and the birth of Jesus was not like the birth of any king the Magi had ever known.
We apply 21st century logic to a story that has been told and retold for over two thousand years. We expect the story to fit within the constraints of what we know today. We expect our leaders to come from privilege and expectation, not from within society. The birth of a child who is to be king and who was born in a stable of parents who could only be considered middle class at best does not fit into our concept of royalty and power, just as it did not fit into the concept of royalty and power that brought the Magi to the Holy Land.
Our problem with the Christmas story, in fact our problem with Christianity today is that we do not think about the story or look at it with fresh eyes. We have to look at the Christmas story and, in fact, all of the Bible, from a viewpoint of faith, not fact. We struggle with this viewpoint because of what society today tells us.
There are a number of individuals in this world who will tell you that the Bible is accurate and truthful. It has to be because it was handed to mankind by God. But we know, first of all, that it was mankind who decided what constituted the Old and New Testaments and that it took many years to put together the particular combination of books that we use today. We see historical bibles located in the monastery of St. Katherine in the Sinai desert and in the British Museum in London that are of approximately the same age (i.e. very old) but which contained different books. Even within the accepted Bible of today, we see contradictions and changes in the stories. If we are to accept the Bible as completely true, then we have to ask God to get a new proofreader.
The one thing that many non-Christians delight in, of course, is showing people these contradictions and reversals. They point out these “errors” and say that there cannot be a God since a perfect God would not make an imperfect book. But this argument is in response to an argument that is also flawed.
The Bible is what it is, a collection of stories telling us how God and mankind have related throughout the history of mankind and society. It is not meant to be a scientific work nor is it meant to be factual literature; it is meant to be a story that tells us there is a God and He cares about us.
This is the part of the story that is often overlooked by Christians and those who oppose Christianity. For so many people today, especially on the left of the political spectrum, Christianity is close-minded and intolerant. They are as guilty of close-mindedness and intolerance as the people whom they accuse.
The problem is that the Christmas story, its aftermath, and its fulfillment have gotten lost in translation and the desire of men to make God their servant rather than the other way around.
Christianity was meant as a way to change society; not simply reinforce it. If those who loudly proclaim themselves to be Christians would live as we are supposed to, then things would be different. Christianity developed as an alternative to a culture that threw away people when they had no more usefulness for society. Christianity provided hope and a promise for people whom society told there was no hope or a promise.
It was Christianity that provided community support for the sick, the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed. It was Christianity that opposed war as the answer to all problems. It was early Christianity that gave equality to women when women were considered chattel rather than human beings.
It was the church that changed the message of Christianity, not God. It was mankind that made the church in his image and used it to simply change the location of authority.
If we were to study the history of Christianity through its form as the church, we would see the development of various denominations as protests to the power of the church and its development as the authority and decider for the people. The same is true today; those today who want to impose a theological political system are simply seeking to impose the same sort of theological structure that was in place when Christ was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. They are not seeking what Christ sought or what Christ taught us; they are seeking a reinforcement of their power and their authority.
Isaiah’s words today (2) are a reminder that God has been consistent in His love and mercy throughout the years before Christ’s birth. It is very difficult (very difficult) for us to understand that because so much of what the church says today is in conflict with that understanding. And as we struggle with this dichotomy, we sometimes forget that the birth of Christ was to be that one visible sign of God’s love and mercy.
The writer of Hebrews also points this out. In today’s reading from Hebrews (3), the writer uses the talks about the one who goes before us as a pioneer or pathfinder. Our journey on earth is never easy, yet we know that Jesus endured much the same as we will in order that we would have salvation in the end. It wasn’t just His death on the Cross but His entire life spent as a human that allowed Him to do so. Yes, it is the death on the Cross that we must focus on but if that was all there was, then we would not have to have Christ born among us and being a part of us.
You can, if you wish, choose to say that it is all a myth. There is very little archeological evidence, there is very little written about what transpired some two thousand years ago that will tell you the truth. But the truth is that in every myth there is some truth.
But the truth is that a number of different people saw what happened and they told others what they saw and others wrote down what everyone saw. And over the years the truth found in the faith of those who told what they saw has never been doubted. It is a story that has lived in the hearts of many for all these years.
Faith, as the writer of Hebrews will tell us later, is a belief in things unseen. If we put our belief in what we see and hear, we will be blind to the story that is unfolding before our eyes and ears and in our hearts and minds. In a world where faith is placed in material goods and physical evidence, it is perhaps time we open our hearts to the story of Christmas and what it means today.
(1) Matthew 2: 13 – 23
(2) Isaiah 63: 7 – 9
(3) Hebrews 2: 10 -18