By the middle of the 4th century Christians were celebrating the nativity of Jesus on December 25 (the birth of Mithras), and as early as the end of the 5th century they were celebrating an Advent Season. In America today Advent is a month-long period of celebration leading up to the Nativity (birth of Jesus Christ). The birth of Jesus marks the beginning of the liturgical year in Western Christianity, and includes, among other things, the lighting of four Advent candles through the four weeks of the season. The candles emphasize the four themes of Christmas: hope, peace, love, and joy.
Oddly, two of the canonical gospels, Mark and John, do not even acknowledge a birth of Jesus. Mark begins the narrative with Jesus as an adult disciple of John the Baptizer (1:9-14), and simply assumes that he was born—after all he had a mother, brothers, and sisters (6:3). There is no mention of a father or stepfather. The life of Jesus before his association with John the Baptist is cloaked in obscurity, with the exception that Mark describes him as a carpenter (6:3); presumably it was his occupation before joining John’s movement. He was assumed to be a human being of anonymous birth on whom the Spirit of God descended at his baptism by John (1:9-11). If there was going to be any subsequent Christian celebration based on Mark’s narrative about Jesus, one would have expected that it would have focused on his baptism, death, and resurrection, since that is what Mark himself stresses (1:9-11; 14:22-28; 16:1-7; 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34).
The Gospel of John also is out of step with the contemporary Christian celebration of Advent. There is no mention of a birth of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Instead John begins with a poetic section (1:1-18): “the Word,” who was pre-existing with the Father (1:1-5). In this Word was Life (1:4) and this Life was the “Light” of human beings. It shines unextinguished in the darkness (1:5). The Light was “True Light,” coming into the world and enlightening all people (1:5). The Word/Life/Light in the world (1:5) became enfleshed and dwelled among us (1:14). Whatever the poet may have had in mind, this is clearly not a nativity story. This poetically described “figure” has no point of beginning and comes from beyond an earthen vale. He only temporarily pitched his tent amongst us (1:14)—that is (if one may borrow a line from Paul), he was not human but came in human likeness by taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:6-7). More prosaically, John recognized that Jesus was the son of Joseph (1:45; 6:42) by an unnamed mother (2:1; 19:25) and he had brothers, also unnamed (2:12; 7:5). Nevertheless, he was not one of us but came “from above, from heaven” (3:31; 8:23). The family attachments were merely part of his human disguise. From John’s perspective one should celebrate his “lifting up” (3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34) and his “rising up” (2:22; 20:9; 21:14).
The birth and infancy narratives in Matthew (1:1-2:23 and Luke (1:5-2:52) are completely different, with the exception that they feature the same main characters (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph).1 The principal disagreements are as follows: the announcement of Jesus’ birth is made to Joseph in a dream in Matthew (1:20-24), but to Mary while awake in Luke (1:26-37); In Matthew Joseph plays a major role in events (1:18-25; 2:13-14, 19-23), but in Luke a minor role (named, 2:4, 16; alluded to,2:5, 22, 27, 33, 39, 41, 43, 48); Matthew has the story of the Magi (2:1-12) but Luke does not. Luke has the story of the shepherds in the field (2:8-20), but Matthew does not. In Matthew Jesus was apparently born in a house (2:11), but in Luke he was born in a stable (2:7, 12, 16). Matthew has the massacre of the children (2:16-18) with the House of Herod playing a prominent role, but this account plays no role in Luke; In Matthew Bethlehem in Judea is the home of Mary and Joseph, they flee to Egypt and do not return to Bethlehem (2:1, 19-23), but in Luke Nazareth in Galilee is the home of Mary and Joseph, they travel to Bethlehem because of the Roman census, they return to Jerusalem and return home to Nazareth (1:26; 2:4-6, 22-24, 39-40).2
The actual conception of Jesus in Matthew and Luke is more like that in John than what one might infer from Mark. In Matthew Mary conceived “like this”: before Mary and Joseph “came together,” she was impregnated “by the Holy Spirit” (1:18, 20). Luke is very similar: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (1:35). He was not the issue of human sperm but in both cases, conception occurred by divine insemination (Matt 1:24-25; Luke 1:34-35). The child to be born will be “the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32), or “God with us” (Matt 1:23). In other words, he is not human but divine.
This trajectory in the gospels of the nature of Jesus/Christ from a human being of anonymous birth (Mark), to a figure conceived by divine insemination (Matthew and Luke) to a figure “from above, from heaven” who is enfleshed for the purposes of an earthly career reveals a fundamental confusion in early Christianity as to how explain the nature of Jesus/Christ. The trajectory anticipates the Christological debates of the 4th/5th centuries and raises the question of which model of Jesus’ coming-to-be in the world should Christians be celebrating during Advent.
Missouri State University
1See Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Wipf & Stock, 1999), 22-63.
2Ibid, pages 61-62.
For me, incarnation is an ascription of praise offered by the third and fourth generations of the Christian movement. It should not, in my opinion, be treated as anything more than a theological flourish on the narrative. Taking it seriously in the 21st century just puts distance between the community of faith and rational people. The church needs to be more than a warehouse of nostalgic affection for ancient beliefs.
I'm thinking that, unlike the divine insemination of Matt and Luke, one could say that in Mark the "Birth" of the "Christ" (1:1) happened with the baptism by John, at which time "the spirit descended on him...(and) a voice from heaven (says), 'You are my Son.'" But, incredibly, an even more conservative Christ-birth interpretation is found in Paul, usually thought of as ignoring a human Jesus altogether. I refer to Romans 1:3-4, "...descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord..." So here, whether Paul's own words or a creed that he uses, the Christ was not "born" until after the death of the man Jesus, which is my own point of view. It allows for the existence of a compelling human with challenging attitudes.
Some later scribe added to the end of Luke 3:22 (Codex Bezae) the statement "This day have I begotten thee." in other word Jesus did not become the Son of god until his baptism. So you seem to share a similar idea with an ancient scribe.
May I also ask you (I assume that you celebrate Advent, or at least Christmas): What is it that you celebrate during the Christmas season?
Good evening Roger,
So what exactly are you celebrating this advent season?
I appreciate any effort to witness to the merger of divinity and humanity at the highest levels of joy and moral responsibility! And nothing tops uplifting relationships.
And, if I may ask, what do you celebrate during this Christmas season?
Good Morning Gene,
Thanks for asking. I celebrate the birth of an Israelite lad whose personal presence and ideas about humanity inspired in his follow Israelites such positive universal concepts as Love, hope, joy, and peace. And I celebrate the literary gifts of the gospel writers who popularized and universalized his ideas throughout the world, and who continue to do so.
I enjoyed the Tryshle ritual in Meiringen one year on Dec. 30. These take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day in Switzerland. Many people, dressed in fearsome outfits parade down the street ringing huge cowbells or beating drums in order to drive away evil spirits, purifying the land of plague and pestilence, making for a prosperous new year. If one could hear the incessant noise, which I was told goes on all night (we left after midnight), it seemed to make as much sense as Jesus birth stories! Below is a link that gives a brief overview.
(That year, we were surprised that there were no church services on Christmas. We were told that the parishioners had been too busy the night before delivering things for those who were not able to get out and were at home sleeping.)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
PS: At least that is what I think I celebrate this year.
Season's Greetings to Charlie and all,
Celebrating Christmas is a cultural requirement in the United States, so I do conform by saying Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to people as it seems to make them happy and cheerful. Socially, you have to go along with the Nativity scenes and songs and rituals... Otherwise, you don't fit in with your peers or neighbors. I look at it this way: Anything I can do to make people smile- I'm glad to oblige. It's just a way to spread warmth and merriment during a dark and cold time of year... Even though all the frenzied activity is quite stressful for people like me.
Christmas means extra work, extra cooking, extra socializing (non-pandemic era), extra expenditures, extra decorating... And it must be performed voluntarily with a smile. All men have to do is sit back and carve the turkey- women work their rear ends off to make Christmas happen for the family. I can't say that I "celebrate" Christmas; I participate in Christmas activities. There's no way to get around it if you want to be a part of decent society. This year, I used the excuse of the pandemic to get out of Christmas cards... But alas, even that is falling by the wayside. I always cave to social pressure. I just can't refrain from reciprocating when people send us cards filled with warmth and kindness- how can you not respond to them?
As far as Jesus is concerned- I have nothing against Jesus... Without him, how would Gentiles have ever been introduced to the God of Abraham Issac and Jacob? The Israelites had no inclination to include non-Jews in their worship of God. They still don't and the reason is that they have no specific mitzvah commanding them to reach out to Gentiles. Although I am against proselytizing human beings and forcing them into religious conversion, there is something to be said for the unconditional acceptance Jesus had for non Jewish Gentiles and welcoming them into the fold.
In terms of what I do celebrate- I celebrate the seasons and the solstice like the Unitarians... I'm very connected to the moon phases and earth's rotation around the sun. All the Christmas I need to see is right outside my door on a frozen pond, a low hanging southerly sun, bare branches, Orion on a starlit night, and seeing my little squirrels feasting on almonds and pecans that are waiting for them every morning rain or shine... Plus the dooryard snowbirds who lift my spirits by pecking at the thistle seed and chirping cheerfully... While I drink my coffee and thank the Universe for all the goodness and wellbeing that surrounds us. I don't need Christmas to make me thankful for that. Elizabeth
Your last paragraph is beautifully poetic1
Thanks for the reference Dennis. Your description of the customs was true to the brief essay.
I awoke early on New Year's Eve, 1999, and wrote a poem that described the ritual, my general modus operandi when visiting different places or cultures. My ears were still ringing and, since I joined in it for several hours, getting home around midnight, my feet were still a bit frozen. On New Year's Eve, we watched fireworks from a unique perspective, looking down the mountains at them bursting below up. (I self-published the poems of that trip, which gave me easy reference.)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Tell us the title of the book and, if readers are interested, where they can buy a copy.
I never really thought about selling my poetry. Some years ago I set several volumes up (formatted, paginated, proofed, and so forth), sent them to a printer, had a number of each made (in those days a couple of bucks per), and have given them to people who might appreciate the imagery or the irreverent but relevant viewpoint. I wrote them so I would better remember the various experiences I had in different circumstances, what came to my senses, best as I could remember just after they happened. (My definition of poetry is "the encapsulation of the world in a word.") The aforementioned poem was one of fourteen in “Schweiz Winter... Into the Millennium.” Literary poetry is generally not read nor bought, with a few exceptions, so this isn't on the market. It just wasn't the purpose.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
We never speak of Advent or Lent. We gave up on almost all of the liturgical calendar and, frankly, most of scripture, a decade ago. We have evolved from being "progressive Christians" into being a more post-theistic "liberal Unitarian" congregation. My sermons now are more a commentary on current ethical issues. I suppose that in the last year I may have mentioned a biblical text no more than 5 times. The world has moved on.
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