We think we know the story of Jesus’ birth. Some of us were drawing pictures of what we were told had happened on Christmas Eve when we were in grade school, and almost everyone has seen creche displays in peoples’ homes or painted on store windows with 3″ brushes and poster paint (with optional blown foam snow). We could all, regardless of our personal faith traditions or non-traditions, recite the components of those nativity scenes: Mary, Joseph, Jesus-in-a-manger, wise men (3), shepherds (several, one of which is grizzled, one of which is a young boy), angels, various camels, sheep, donkeys, and cows, and a stable. Here’s an old Christmas card that captures some of those elements:
That was one of those Christmas cards from when Jesus was Norwegian. Here’s another representation of that collection of holy artifacts, a a 50% life size crèche assembled in a church:
The trouble is, even for those who believe every word of the New Testament, every jot and tittle of every verse, every comma and capital letter and space (even where none appeared in original Greek), even for those people, this conglomeration of texts, imaginations, and cutesy Hallmark artists, is not true- it’s not the way it was. The one thing we can absolutely, positively, 100% KNOW about the birth of Jesus is that none of it looked like anything like any of the above! Here’s what we DO know- literally, from the gospel of Luke, chapter 2, about the place Jesus’ birth:
5 He [Joseph] went there [Bethlehem]to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
There is no stable, cave, barn or other outside shelter mentioned- only a manger and that could be anywhere: under a tent, in a courtyard, under an overhanging roof, in a grove of trees, or in a stable. Shepherds will show up in a few verses, in response to the sound of angelic singing. And, in the gospel of Matthew, some magi (or wise men or astrologers or scholars, depending on your translation, will follow a star and find Jesus in a house. A house, really. That’s all it says and it doesn’t say when. (Later in the chapter, there will be evidence that the wise magi astrologizing scholars visited when Jesus was about two years old.)
Almost everything we carry around in our mind’s and imagination about the birth of Jesus has been placed there by seeing old paintings, which gave birth in the late 1800s to Christmas cards. Which spawned Christian book stores. Which led to the selling of Christmas cards with glitter, and the selling of stuff like this:
The 2009 Thomas Kinkade Christmas Pocket Planner
As fanciful and silly as are the paintings of Kinkade, which always seem to feature darling thatched-roof cottages with blazing-fireplace light pouring out of every window and built (almost always) on the flood plain of a creek or river, so are the images we have of Jesus’ birth also fanciful and sometimes, just as silly.*
It leads me to wonder two things:
Why are so many people not aware of the very synthetic nature of the Christmas story as it is popularly portrayed .. syntheses which they have come to believe are historical truths?
Why is there the need by many to embellish, romanticize and ‘make pretty’ the story of Jesus’ birth?
I have opinions (of course), but I think both of those are questions which serve best as jumping off places for your thoughts. Really, whenever we ponder questions, we are led closer to the Truth. So, ponder! And, as I’ve said before, you’ll know when you’re getting near Truth, when you start seeing more questions. It’s a never-ending cycle- a conundrum some might call it. Maybe we’ll run into some of those wise men along the way..
* Apologies to those who may love Thomas Kinkade, may he rest in peace. But I just can’t stand anything about his “art”- his style, his marketing, his assembly line production of new products, nor the purchased adoration of fans. He was, once upon a time early in his career, a pretty decent painter. But…$. The rest of the story of his art manufacturing company is not one you’ll want to read if you are dedicated to really loving Kinkade’s art.
ArcAngel Gabriel by Jan Oliver (www.janoliver.com)
Luke 1: 13 But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah.”
Luke 1: 29,30 [Mary] was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear..”
Right off the bat, in the first chapter of Luke, the story of Jesus begins. Included in that first chapter are two commands to not be afraid, both made by the archangel Gabriel, on behalf of God. The first admonition to “fear not” is made to Mary’s cousin-in-law, the priest Zachariah. The second is spoken to Mary herself.
From those two thematic statements there grew a stream of such statements throughout all four gospels. Trust me on this, or get a concordance. One angel or another or, most often, Jesus himself is always telling someone to “Fear not.”
“Fear not” must today be one of our main mantras. Speak it in lectio divina– divine reading. Let the words begin to echo, from instinct to instinct within yourself. From the instinct to be afraid of new things, to the instinct to flee whatever seems to be threatening, let this command to be not afraid bounce between and dull the sharp edges of such words.
Because all of us are working at a disadvantage. All of us have had the realities and residuals of fear, guilt, and shame sharpened to cutting edges within our hearts and souls. All of us have learned about or spent huge, inordinate, and ever-growing amounts of time to evaluating everything- the world around us, the people in that world, and ourselves. How has that happened?
The gospel story has changed, because those of us who are hearing it are part of a culture that has changed. We have moved from that message of “Fear Not!” to the predominate spiritual message of today which says, “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid!”
Here’s part of a poem (anonymous) written around 1820, the same year “’twas the Night Before Christmas” was published. It is from a Dutch/German tradition, and is in the voice of Santa Claus. The preceding verses contain lines about rewards given to good children; but this is what children of 200 years ago were already hearing:
But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,
I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.
From “Fear not!” to “the dread command of God” and “leave a long, birchen rod” for use on the skin of “children naughty.” That’s the movement of the Christmas story through time. It’s the too-easy, infectuous descent from Love to Fear, and it is the perpetual plague of Christianity. It’s part of the also-perpetual perplexity that many students of Christianity face at some point in their lives. Historical pogroms of Jewish settlements, the murder of peasants in Luther’s Germany, The Roman Catholic Inquisition in Europe, Christian Church endorsed colonialism throughout the “New World”, and today’s endorsement of government torture by some evangelical Christian groups and political leaders…What the hell is all this anger and hatred and killing and blood and shame and guilt and war being done in the name of Jesus who was born while angelic choirs were singing “Fear Not!” ?? It has been enough for many many students of Christianity to be so perplexed, so unable to make such disparate parts jive, and so disappointed and sad at the ugly scream they perceive the wondrously whispered opening gospel sounds to have become, that they leave. In droves. And those droves are increasing.
My intentions today have been to simply introduce the dichotomy, and say out loud what many people wonder about, but hesitate to publicly question. I want to spend more time examining some of those so-strange twists and turns the story of Jesus has taken through the darker corners of human history, because I believe the real story of Jesus is best expressed in those opening lines of fearlessness. The gospels were not written in, about, or because of fear. The life of Jesus was not lived so that humans could attach their ravenous egos to his name and terrorize their ways through history. The baby Jesus wasn’t born in a manger so that other children could be threatened with beatings in anticipation of his birthday’s celebration.
If we see where the story went wrong (and I believe it did, too often and horribly so), then we can perhaps again hear Gabriel say “Fear not!”..
Luke 1: 37 And Mary said,
Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.
Mary was young. In the context and customs of her time, she was (almost certainly) 15 or 16 years old. There is nothing biblical that would make Joseph too much older than that, either.
Until the 18th and 19th centuries, artists were pretty much constricted by the Church to painting Mary as the Mother of Christ, period. As such, she was largely depicted as sexless, even a bit cold. After then Reformation and then later, the French Revolution broke the stranglehold of the Church in most of Europe over art and much else, Mary was freed to be represented artistically as human. And she was shown as vulnerable in her youthfulness, and even sexual in her budding womanhood. Examples:
“The Annunciation” by Henry Tanner, 1898. The angel Gabriel here is a column of light. Young Mary is alone. This painting was controversial because, like the earlier painting shown next, it portrays Mary on a bed.
“Acce Ancilla Domini” by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1850. Despite the confidence we read into the words of Mary as they were scripturally preserved, she was no doubt confused. THERE WAS AN ANGEL- A MAN ANGEL!- IN HER HOME TELLING HER SHE WAS ABOUT TO BECOME PREGNANT! Painters felt free now to portray that surprise, that fear, that hesitation.
“Annunciation” by John Collier (1980s?) Put into a very modern setting, the schoolgirl and the archangel’s initial encounter looks and feels..well, creepy. But we are able to see here, in terms we understand, a pretty good rendition of the age and immaturity of the girl/woman Mary. (Note the lily in front of her which is just beginning to bloom- an interesting artistic touch.)
By the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had opened many psychological doors for painters and other artists to explore- psychological doors of the painters themselves, their subjects, and of viewers of the art. By the time the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (yes, the same artist who did “The Scream”) painted “Madonna” in 1895, there were few restrictive religious rules or prohibitions still in effect. This painting reflects both the freedom felt by artists of this period, and freedom from the enforced non-sexuality of Mary by the Church.
Religious art is an outward and visible means of better understanding contemporary theology. The biblical story is not a static one. It has been thought about and understood in many different ways and it is too easy for any one cultural group in a particular time to believe that theirs is the only and proper interpretation. Artists remind us that God is not suspended in anyone’s time. And they remind us that Jesus, the Word made flesh was born of a very real young woman: the flesh made Word. He was like us because she was like us.
Liminality is a seldom used but much needed word. It comes from the Latin word limina, which means threshold. The place of liminality is a crossover point, a threshold to step across, a door to go through. It involves the movement from one state of being to another- the movment from single life to marriage, for instance. That period of engagement is the threshold to marriage; steps have been taken away from being single toward marriage. The time of preparation, from the time that agreement is mutual to those moments before the marriage vows are completed, is liminal time.
Who’s there? asks Mary
The Angel Gabriel.
The Angel Gabriel who?
OK, you know the rest; but what happens between Gabriel’s *KnockKnock* and the acceptance of the Angel’s message by Mary, is liminal time. It is very much like the still point in dance- that moment when the dancer completes one movement and prepares, in stillness however briefly, for the next movement.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David… Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that.
[liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality]
And Mary said,
Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.
“The Annunciation”, El Greco, about 1615
Mary had to agree for the contract being proposed by Gabriel, between her and God, to be completed; she had to take a step across the threshold. In doing so, she knew her life would never again be the same as it had been the day before. Liminal times demand decisions.
Our own liminal moments occur with incredible frequency. We are often moving across, through, and over thresholds that cause everything to become new. It’s not like we have to become pregnant with the Messiah, or even to get married for all things to become new (although both those things will do it!). We are often presented with opportunities (large and small) for education, for meetings with new people, the chance to visit new places, or to participate in new experiences. All of those events are filled with liminal possibilities. But they are not all opportunities or chances that are easily entered into. Many have curtains of fear- imagined and real- draped across them, and which must be crossed. People don’t go to school because they’re afraid they’ll run of money. People don’t get married because, “Who will take care of Mom and Dad?” People will stay at mundane, mind-deadening jobs, because they dare not risk losing a guaranteed paycheck. The dance for them, stops. The still point becomes a period, the end of a sentence that could have become a paragraph, even a chapter in an epic saga!
So, in liminal fog, a suspended animation, so many/ too many people choose to be safe. They stay where they are, though unhappy; they refuse to look beyond the fence, because the grass over here is good enough; and they miss the mysterious smorgasbord of Life in favor of the already familiar meat loaf special. They choose to miss being pregnant with Messiah. They choose to miss being part of all things becoming new.
Luke 1: 26b-28 (The Message)
“God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.'”
Annunciation, by Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1475
The artworks which fill our memories as we read the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, it must be noted again, are all from the post-Constantinian period (312 C.E.). After the declaration by Emperor Constantine that Christianity would heretofore be the official religion of the (now) Holy Roman Empire, all paintings would subsequently depict the institutional and divinely ordained Romantic nature of the biblical narratives, as approved by solemnly nodding church and state collusionaries.
So, let us concentrate, as we will throughout this Christmas Series (which I am tempted to call a Holiday series, just to rankle those who are easily rankled), on the text that I think gives a feel for the pre-Constantine, politically incorrect language used by the earliest Christians . I’m using the text of Eugene Peterson’s The Message to do that.*
Let’s, in these first paragraphs, deal with the camel that is always in the tent: Mary’s virginity. Here’s my immediate take on it: I doubt she was a virgin within the intact-hymen definition of virginity. I think real, verifiable virginity would have been the kind of BIG DEAL that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul would have all written about in CAPITAL LETTERS, and at length. Yet, only Matthew and Luke mention virginity. Mark, who is generally regarded as the earliest gospel writer and John, regarded as the latest, didn’t mention it at all. The actual birth story of Jesus played no part in the story these two gospel writers told, nor in any of the even earlier letters written by Paul. The Matthean and Lukan narratives seem (IMHO) to mention the virginity of Mary as a means of ingratiating themselves to the particular audiences to whom they were writing.
Now I know that’s a deal-breaker for some. Those preachers and teachers who have Jesus enclosed in a perfectly sized, dogmatically-wrapped container will not/cannot accept the gospels of Mark and John as the stand-alone gospels they were for many decades for many many of the first followers of The Way. C’est la vie (you’ll see that phrase often from me. It means “Don’t bother arguing with me about it. I don’t care.”) There’s too much cool stuff, big stuff, enlightening, transcending, and revolutionary stuff to say about Jesus to get hung up on whether or not the sheets of Mary and Joseph’s connubial bed were bloody. Jesus was the son of God and the son of man exactly as we are all the children of God and the children of men and women. That’s flat out exciting to me and that is an excitement I hope I am capable of sharing in the coming weeks.
(For the record, just so those who need to know will know, I am not a complete heathen! I do not believe in the virgin birth of any of these well known personages either: Alexander the Great, Zoroaster, Perseus, Kabir, Buddha, Horus, Quirrnus, or Adonis. )
Mary- kissed by the morning sun, embraced by the divinity she felt warm against her skin. Mary- beautiful inside and out, a cradle for the Christ. Mary- God is with her. Perhaps it was that she was unusually unaffected by the human selfishness, shame, or guilt that can bend too many young woman so severely. Perhaps she was able to see clearly beyond the regrets of yesterday or the anxieties of tomorrow that violate the innocence of mindful and present living. Perhaps it was that purity and grace, that tenderness and simplicity that enabled Mary to love first the one who would teach generations about real love, true love.
Let’s follow her for awhile, starting tomorrow.
*I don’t know Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek and am not about, at the age of 60, to begin learning those languages. Let’s assume (correctly) that for some years after the story of Jesus happened (however-it-did in fact happen), that it was passed along verbally before being written down by the many various gospel writers. It would have been told in its essentials in a conversational way. The Message does that, too. It is not a perfect translation, but we don’t have one one of those anywhere, in any language. So The Message will do for these musings, because I say so.
I’ll resume my discussion of tribalism and fear, but I think we ALL need to be periodically shocked (right down to our socks), by a glimpse of how despicable humans can be when they’ve got “God on their side.”
And if you can stand it, here’s a slide show. This was all happening last December while we here in the U.S. were concerned about retail sales and the GNP, and whether or not that son of a bitch behind the counter at Target would say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holiday.”
Meet me at Starbuck’s in the morning and over a double latte and orange scones; we can argue about teabags, then head to the mall.