My wife and I just got back from a lovely trip to the Bay Area, where we listened to Christmas choirs in a cathedral and a church and, while on the road, to Paul McCartney/Wings singing “simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” It’s the most wonderful time of the year. What fun.
We attended a traditional Christmas pageant at Community Church of Monterey Peninsula, where readings from the late-written (early second century) Gospel of Luke recount the sweet story of the birth of baby Jesus, laid in a manger, with angels and shepherds watching.
How we have both romanticized, conflated and sanitized the story of surrounding Jesus’ birth!
The earlier-written* Gospels of Mark and John are silent about Jesus’ birth and only the Gospel of Matthew mentions the intrigue of the wise men around the time of Jesus’ birth and a horrific killing of male children under 2 years of age by King Herod. Brian D. McLaren in his book We Make the Road by Walking, reminds us that “as is the case with many biblical stories, some scholars doubt this mass slaughter occurred…” But keeping Herod in the Christmas story reminds us that today, as was the case 2000+ years ago, “elites plot violence… children pay the price… and mothers weep.”
“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with vulnerable children in defiance of the adults who see them as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and cooperation from the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable.”
Are we living peace on earth or war? Do we favor the rich or the poor?
Is perhaps the story of this historical Jesus closer to what Hugh Blumenfeld’s audacious song suggests: Jesus was a long-haired, radical, socialist Jew?
So as we seek to Keep Christmas With Us All Through the Year, we need to keep King Herod in Christmas. We need to be open-eyed about the historical Jesus and the political/social context of his ministry. Hardest of all, we need to keep Christ in Christians.
As Jackson Brown sings in the Rebel Jesus, “…pardon me if I have seemed to take the tone of judgement. For I’ve no wish to come between this day and your enjoyment. In a life of hardship and earthly toil, there’s a need for anything that frees us. So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer from a heathen and pagan, on the side of the rebel Jesus.”
*Notes on dating of the Gospels are from Markus Borg in Evolution of the Word (2012):
Q – “seems likely a major part of Jesus’s teaching was committed to writing in the 50s and 60s in the hypothetical document Q, that is a collection of teachings, not a narrative.”
Mark – “around the year 70”
Matthew – “in the 80s or perhaps early 90s.”
John – “mainline scholars commonly date John around the year 90. Most also think that John as earlier and later layers.”
Luke – “for about a century, the conventional wisdom of mainline scholarship has dated Luke and Acts to the late 80s or 90s. But in the last decade, a growing number of scholars have dated them significantly later, in the first decade or two of the second century. Thus there is no consensus about their dating, though probably at least a slight majority still favor the 80s to early 90s…. some scholars argue that the author knew passages from the works of Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote in the 90s, thus making Luke-Acts later than that…”
Borg also says “the names were assigned to the gospels only in the second century.”