Scripture: Luke 2: 1-20 Nigel Bunce
What does it mean to say, “The Christmas story is true.”
Luke’s Christmas story
In Luke’s Christmas story, an angel tells a young girl that she will have a child. His father will be the Holy Spirit. She gives birth in a humble stable. Another angel tells some shepherds about the holy child’s birth. So they go into Bethlehem to see. They find everything just as the angel predicted.
Is this Christmas story true? What does that mean? The Oglala Lakota Black Elk once said about a legend, “I don’t know if it really happened that way but the story is true.”
A couple of weeks ago, I posted to Facebook a piece about Advent. The gist of it was that the earliest Christians weren’t waiting for the birth of the Christ-child. They were worried that Jesus had not yet returned to complete his work of bringing God’s Kingdom to reality. So their sense of Advent was that they were waiting for what we call the Second Coming.
Indeed, those early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. Jesus’ birth didn’t interest them. And the earliest Gospel (Mark) didn’t begin the story until Jesus was an adult, when he met John the Baptist.
But is the story true?
The Gospel author Luke wrote about fifty years after Jesus died. There were no newspapers or TV, no internet. No-one could recall the actual details – the so-called facts. I have no idea about how Luke composed the story. Maybe he wrote down stories that had circulated orally. Perhaps he embroidered them.
Or maybe he created the whole thing from scratch. Because, Luke was not a dispassionate chronicler. Like other early Christians, he believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. He had an agenda. To convince people that Jesus was the Son of God. To use a modern phrase, that was “his truth”.
What, Nigel, are you challenging Holy Scripture? Do you think that Luke’s story about Jesus’ birth is rubbish? No. I don’t. The society and culture of Jesus’ day were completely different from ours. Their world was one of myths and miracles. Today, we insist that all our truths are literal, rational, and verifiable.
Myths are not “fake news”. People invent fake news to obscure the truth. Fake news is a lie. Myths offer a way to tell a story that brings out a truth. Or to explain the unexplainable. Michelle and I have a wonderful PBS series in DVD format. It consists of conversations between the late Joseph Campbell and broadcaster Bill Moyers. Its title is The Power of Myth.
Who was the Christ-child?
In the Christmas story, heaven and earth were so close together that night that a group of shepherds seemed to see the sky crack open. Heavenly light broke in on earthly darkness. Angels spoke. “The Messiah is born in Bethlehem. Go and see.”
Thus in the myth, story, or whatever you decide to call it, the shepherds looked into the eyes of the newborn Jesus. They saw the face of divinity, holiness, looking back at them. The Christ-child was the Messiah, that their people had anticipated for centuries. Christianity says it this way. Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
We call Jesus’ birth Incarnation, which means “fleshiness”. In Luke’s telling, or myth, the shepherds represent ordinary flesh and blood people. Not aristocracy or royalty. Shepherds, in old and dirty clothes, smelling of sweat and sheep.
The Huron Carol
I want to repeat something I said at last year’s late Christmas Eve service. Someone once told me they didn’t like the Huron Carol ‘Twas in the moon of wintertime because “that wasn’t the way it happened”. They meant that the ‘way it happened’ was how Luke told it.
But the carol had meaning (myth) for the Huron people. Just as Luke’s version had meaning and myth for 1st century Jewish people. Both use familiar symbols and images to their culture. A “lodge of broken bark” not a stable. A “robe of rabbit skin” not swaddling cloths. “Hunters” not shepherds. “Chiefs from afar” bringing “fox and beaver pelts” not Magi coming from afar with gold and spices.
How the Christmas story might look today
Suppose I rewrite the Christmas story for 21st century Canadians? Office workers in Toronto (or New York, or Paris, or London, or Hong Kong …) hear the song of the angels as they sit at their computers. “Jesus your king is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.” At once they leave their offices, without even shutting off their computers.
Those Toronto workers take the GO train out to Milton. There, they find the new-born baby lying in his mother’s arms in a townhouse on Derry Road. They bring gift cards from stores in Milton Mall. That’s surely too improbable and prosaic. Yet it’s essentially Luke’s story.
Would a bunch of ordinary shepherds have really heard an angel choir? Would they immediately have left their sheep (their jobs) to run to Bethlehem? What about a bunch of Huron hunters, searching for food in the dead of winter, or a group of Toronto office workers at their computers? Each story seems wildly improbable, but that, I think was Luke’s point. The improbable had happened; the Messiah had come!
Luke’s objective wasn’t to describe the literal truth in his story of shepherds and angels, but the sacred truth. Jesus was the Messiah. So of course his birth was special. Heaven and earth became one for a magical moment in a stable in Bethlehem. We have told and retold this story for 2000 years in the belief and hope that heaven and earth can be one in our own time. As Black Elk might have said, “I don’t know if it really happened that way but the Christmas story is true.” That’s what myth means.
So I will finish my Christmas Eve homily the same way that I have done for several years. Tonight, just for this very holy night, set logic and your modern way of thinking aside. It’s two thousand years ago. You are a shepherd. You’ve come to Bethlehem. Open the stable door very gently. Don’t let too much cold air in. If you look very carefully, once your eyes adjust, you will see the Messiah. Because the Christmas story is true. Amen.