December 21, 2010

Christmas--What's the Point?

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The story of the first Christmas has endured for almost two thousand years, surviving translation from ancient into modern culture, the attacks of hostile rationalists, the naiveté of biblical literalists, crass commercialism in the marketplace, the self-serving interests of overzealous pietism, and wholesale blending with other competitive holiday traditions.

     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. And today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are still influenced by it. Motivated by the ancient story, we moderns have been led to acts of altruism, self-sacrifice, and charity that surprise even us. It is difficult to have a “bah-humbug!” attitude when we are bombarded with so much Christmas “magic.” The “magic” in the air at this time of year 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 do these narratives describing Jesus’ birth still speak to modern human beings? It is surely not because of their unity, philosophical sophistication, technical excellence, or even their credibility. For example, there are actually two different Christmas stories in the New Testament, one by Matthew and another by Luke. Mark and John either do not know a birth narrative, or simply do not report whatever they might have known. (They make similar points about Jesus in other ways.) Many devout church people privately confide that they have difficulty accepting the credibility of the miraculous elements in the narratives—virgin birth, angels, star leading the wise men, etc. For many modern folk, these are obstacles to faith, while the “true believer” makes them a test of true faith. Such miraculous elements, however, are common in the literature of antiquity, where they are used to validate the careers of great men. Compare, for instance, birth stories about Asclepius, Hercules, and Alexander the Great. The real “miracle” of Christmas, however, lies elsewhere—for example, in how it inspires us to treat one another.

     In spite of their legendary and mythical character the Christmas narratives still seem to be relevant in our day. Each narrative expresses the deepest longings and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. Their vision rises above those insignificant borders separating denominations—and even religions. The stories address two basic concerns of our common humanity, regardless of heritage or creed: they speak to our awareness of the human condition — a terrible dread of our own finitude and our awe of the infinite, however we label it. And they also address our very deep desire for peace in the world at all levels of human existence (Luke 1:76-79).

     Matthew proclaims that a gracious God is brought near to all in the humanity of a Jewish lad born in a remote corner of the Roman Empire two centuries ago (Matt 1:21-23)—the finite and the infinite coincide! And here is the message of that coincidence: neither human finitude nor divine infinitude need be feared any longer! Luke, on the other hand, holds forth this event as promise of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). The possibility of being free from the terror of our finitude and of finding peace in a turbulent and frequently brutal world is “good news” indeed! Such hope should bring comfort and cheer to every human heart—and is worthy of celebration by all humankind. Sing Wassail! Wassail!

(Revised from Charles Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest, pages 72-73)

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:30am