This brief essay is a reprise in three ways: it looks back a few days ago to Christmas 2014; it is a revision of an essay I published in the Springfield News-Leader on December 24th 1986; and it also appeared in 2009 in a collection of my editorials, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest (Wipf and Stock). Here it is again somewhat revised:
The Christmas story has endured for slightly under 2,000 years; it has survived translation from ancient into modern culture, the attacks of hostile rationalists, the naiveté of biblical literalists, its crass commercialism in the marketplace, the self-serving interests of overzealous pietists, the secularizing of western society, and its amalgamation with other competitive non-Christian holiday traditions through the centuries.
The story of the birth of Jesus continues to capture the imagination of the most creative and able talent of western culture. Under its influence artists have produced many of the masterpieces of our Judeo-Christian heritage in art, music, and literature. And today in the early twenty-first century, we are still influenced by the message we find in the Christmas story. Motivated by that ancient story, we moderns have been led to acts of altruism, self-sacrifice, and charity that surprise even us upon looking back at our behavior. When we are bombarded with so much Christmas "magic" during the festive season, it is difficult for the Scrooges of the world to react with a "bah! Humbug." There is a grandeur, a nobility, associated with Christmas that stirs the slumbering chords of the highest human ideals. For that reason, the Christmas story is authentic in a way that historical criticism cannot confirm, or even investigate.
Why should these narratives describing the birth of Jesus still speak to modern human beings educated in a secularized west? It is not because of their unity, philosophical sophistication, or technical excellence. For example, there are in the New Testament actually two completely different stories describing how the first "Christmas" happened, one by Matthew (1:18-23) and the better known story by Luke (2:1-21). Mark either did not know a narrative of the birth of Jesus, or simply did not think it important enough to report. John did not need a birth story, since Jesus was not actually "born" in the Gospel of John (1:1-18). The many miraculous elements in the birth narratives—virgin birth, angels, star leading the "wise men," etc., are simply no longer credible to twenty-first century human beings (except the "true believers"), and constitute serious obstacles to the religious faith of many of us. The "true believer," on the other hand, makes believing the miraculous the test of what it means to have "true faith." Such miraculous elements are common in the literature of antiquity, where they are used to validate the careers of great men by ascribing to them the trappings of divinity; compare, for example, the birth stories about Asclepius, Hercules, and Alexander the Great. It seems to me, however, that the real "miracle" of Christmas does not lie in the miraculous features of the stories; the miracle lies in the existential influence of the story upon those of us who celebrate Christmas; that is, it lies in what the season does to us and in how it inspires us to treat one another.
The Christmas narratives still remain surprisingly relevant in our day, in spite of their legendary and mythical character. Behind each of the birth narratives lies a deep longing and noble aspiration of the human spirit. The vision afforded by the narratives rises above the horizon of those ultimately insignificant narrow borders separating religions and the different versions of Christianity. The narratives address a basic issue that concerns our common humanity regardless of heritage or creed; they speak to our consciousness of human finitude—our terrible dread of the infinite, however we label it (death, eternity, a divine infinite, inability to control destiny, etc.); and they address a very deep desire for peace in the world at all levels of human existence.
Matthew and Luke proclaim that in the humanity of a particular Jewish lad, born in a remote village of the Roman Empire, in a naive and pre-scientific age—that in this lad, in some way, a divine infinity has intersected the finite human (Matt 1:20-23; Luke 1:35): that is to say, the message of both stories is that infinity need not be feared, but rather embraced! Luke holds forth the birth of this child as a promise of "peace on earth" (Luke 1:76-79; 2:11-14). The possibility of being free from the terror of our own finitude and of finding peace in a turbulent and frequently brutal world is "good news" indeed. Such hope holds forth a promise of comfort for every human heart, and is worthy of celebration by all of us.
And so I still think today.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Missouri State University
Reference: Robert J. Miller, Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003).