The Manger. A Christmas Journey..

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:

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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:

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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

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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?

and,

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.

 

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Irony, Paradox, Tension. A Christmas Journey..

In a court of law, the whole story would be torn apart by even a mediocre prosecutor as soon as the words “virgin” and “pregnant” were used in the same sentence.

The defense could very well sway the jury by bringing out their main witness- Joseph, the put-upon and betrayed, but also believing, forgiving, and accepting fiance of the young “virgin mother.” 

Throw the dice. OK, 2 out of 3? 4 out of 7? Rock, Paper, Scissors? Eenie, meenie, miney, mo? Draw straws. Who’s right; who’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth; who’s lying?

Who is being good? Who is being bad?

Here’s one more really great thing about the Christmas story that not many people have considered: it makes no sense. Two completely different birth stories- Matthew’s and Luke’s- that come together only on Hallmark Christmas cards and childrens’ Sunday School handouts. Unlikely scenarios, difficult time-lines, and a cast of characters that includes a chorus of singing angels- it is through that wild potpourri of people and events that Jesus the Messiah appeared in the world, and turned that world into a new creation.

Luke 1: 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

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It made no sense and neither, if we admit it, does much of life. If we had a nativity story that followed a logical, consistent, and progressive series of facts, we would have every right to question all of it. When that kind of defense is put forward in a criminal court- when all of the witnesses and facts line up in perfect and straight rows, the prosecution can pretty easily show that there has been collusion and rehearsal in the presentation of a fictional defense.

Life, as we live it, is rarely an either/or set of decisions. We deal with people both as we hope they will be and as they are. We enjoy the food at a restaurant even though the service has been lousy. (Both/And) We do not throw our kids out of the house because their room is an unhealthy mess (Either/Or).

We learn to cut slack because slack is being cut for us all the time. We learn to give love and accept grace because we’re accepting love and extending grace all day long in our daily affairs. We may talk a lot in black & white, and even make some decisions based on what seems good and what seems bad, but we live in the inconsistencies of human interaction and in the chaos of a world that always being recreated.

The story of Jesus’ birth is a mess. So messy that Mark and John ignore it altogether. But that makes the story a lot like us. At least a lot like me. I’ll let you decide for yourself. That way both you and I will be right.  

Joseph, chagrined. A Christmas Journey..

fewMatthew 1: 18-19 The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

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carved Santos figures, “Mary and Joseph”, Guatamala, early 20th C.

According to Matthew, Joseph had a choice. What to do about his fiance Mary who was now pregnant, without his participation? Stop right now if you’re imagining how it went with your cousin/brother/neighbor who went through the same experience just a few years ago.  Mosaic law was a whole other animal than the rage and hurt faced by that guy you know.

First of all, Joseph and Mary weren’t just caught in a personal dilemma, nor was it a matter of sorting through various civil rules or cultural standards in any way we can relate to today (unless you’re a very conservative Muslim). Mary’s pregnancy forced  Joseph, his family, and her family into dealing with Mosaic law. Along with not eating oysters, mixing cotton and wool in a garment, or breaking up a fight by grabbing one of the participants by the testicles, getting pregnant before marriage was a wrong, wrong, wrong spiritual move. And unlike the other spiritual sins just listed, this one could get a girl dragged by the hair to the edge of town and stoned. Which happened then, even as it happens today. (And we hear about it happening, once in awhile, in a few countries like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia among some of those who practice fundamental interpretations of Sharia law but, in fact, it probably happens more frequently throughout in other small factions and communities of Islam, where  reporting to the outside world rarely happens.)

In other words, this wasn’t the kind of problem that would merely cause the neighbors to gossip, or prompt the local judge to make  the “wayward girl” wear a red A across herr chest. This was the kind of sin that could cause YHWH Godself to regard a person for the rest of her life with an angry scowl and a slingshot full of punishment.

Decisions, Decisions, indeed! Matthew describes Joseph as chagrined, chagrined but noble. He was noble in that he didn’t give into his chagrin and do the “easy thing,” which would have been to let Mary be stoned. (I remind you, don’t try to project the way we might think about such an incident as 21st C. Americans. These were people that had a place just outside of town reserved for stonings. They happened regularly for a whole variety of spiritual and civil crimes. It was a BIG DEAL, yes, but not the kind of incident that would cause Nancy Grace to scream indignantly [and correctly] on cable TV for months and months).

Joseph and those close to him- because this kind of decision would have been an extended family decision- decided not take the easy way but, instead, “[they took] care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.” Or dead.

Most likely that meant keeping her under the radar of the religious legalists- the ones who love- LOVE!- the black ink of rules much more than the red blood of humans. It meant, to some degree, becoming a family of religious outlaws- purposefully breaking the Mosaic law in the way Jesus himself would often break Mosaic law when it interfered with the lives of humans. In that way, Joseph foreshadowed the kind of decisions his step-son would become famous for making.

Jesus didn’t die with his mother at the stoning ground before he was born, as could very well have happened. He did die at a similar killing ground, though, about 33 years later when the religious legalists colluded with the civil authorities to shut him up.  His season in the sun that preceded Golgotha was, apparently, planned and coordinated by Jesus’ acknowledged heavenly father. But let’s be sure to always give his earthly step-father his due, too.  Joseph stopped the horrifying from happening before the story ever had a chance to begin.

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From just two weeks ago, the stoning of a 13 year old rape victim. Who will ever know? Perhaps she was pregnant with Messiah, too:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7708169.stm