Friday, December 21, 2012

The Christmas Story

"And an angel came to the woman and told her she would bear a child."

That's not a direct Biblical quote, but it is paraphrased.  If you think I am referring to Mary being visited by an angel, I am not, I am referring to Abraham's wife Sarah.  She was told by one of the three angels that visited them she would have a child.  She laughed!

The same story happens again the the opening of the new testament when Elisabeth and Zechariah are visited by Gabriel and told they will have a child, John.

The same story happens again in Luke when another angel tells Mary she will have a son, Jesus.

So what gives?  Three identical stories with the names and times changed, yet essentially they are all the same.

Well, I am not a Biblical scholar, and never attended Divinity School, but here's my take on it:

Each of these births was seen as an important milestone. Their story is told through a familiar lens of an older well-known story.  This is not to shroud history, but to reveal the truths behind the tale.  They are great myths that pass along knowledge and wisdom through generations.  They are not historically accurate.

Just like the slaughter of the innocents in the New Testament, there is a matching story in the Old Testament.  Moses is hidden in the bull rushes to avoid being slaughtered by Pharaoh in Egypt. Likewise, Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to avoid having Jesus killed by Herod.

Why?  Because it was important to show that Jesus was of the same caliber and even greater than Moses, who "came out of Egypt".  That story was very familiar to all Jews who heard it and they would no doubt have gotten the comparison. 

Did it happen?  There is no historical evidence for Herod slaughtering children, but that wasn't the point of the story.  It was a literary device to get Jesus into Egypt, so he could later emerge with the importance needed to convey who he was.

Wise men?  They most likely never existed, but their presence in the story shows once again, and this time to Roman citizens how important Jesus was. His birth narrative is not historical fact, but another literary device to infer his importance.  It is filled with truth, but very few facts.

Does this mean I am not a Christian?  Absolutely not.  As a follower of Jesus, I find these stories meaningful and worth retelling again and again, but without understanding the "why" of these tales, they easily become just a bunch of fictional stories. 

As Bishop John Shelby Spong noted in his book, "Liberating the Gospels" these tales are best viewed as "midrash".  It is a Jewish tradition of retelling a story with new characters to show their real importance and to connect with a new audience. 

So take some time and really read the Christmas stories again and don't look for facts, but instead seek the truth they convey.

Merry Christmas.

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