I don’t like the Christmas stories – I LOVE THEM!
When I was seventeen I attended a youth summer camp led by prominent ministers and professors from a theological college. One encounter remains fixed in my memory.
A professor was talking about the Christmas stories. “Clearly”, he said, “No educated person can believe in the virgin birth. Most probably Mary was made pregnant by a travelling Roman soldier or some village lay about”.” That really got me going.
My family were fundamentalist Bible-believers. I objected strenuously. I can’t remember the detail of the exchange but I realise that there would have been more heat than light.
It’s still the same today. My sophisticated, educated friends don’t believe the virgin Mary story. And what about me?
I know that stories of virgin births are to be found throughout antiquity. When it comes to religions, the idea of a virgin birth is ‘out there’.
Actually, I accept the Biblical account, but I understand why many cannot. And that does not concern me, because to my mind that is not the most important point of the story.
For centuries the people of Israel had been waiting for a chosen one, a Saviour.
They agonized for his coming. They prayed for it day and night. They prophesied about it. They studied every word of holy text. They memorized whole books of scripture. They fasted. They pooled all their money and built a glorious temple – all of this so they would be ready for the coming king.
They all missed it!
When God, the Meaning of all things, chose to reveal his/her face, he/she entered the world through the vehicle of a teenage girl, pregnant out of wedlock. The pious, the priestly, the scholars and the whole ‘prepare ye the way for the Messiah’ industry, did not have a clue.
They could not have imagined such a thing. The shame of this teenager’s condition and the consequences that would follow were huge. Even today in many cultures, the girl would be expelled by her family and community, or even killed by members of her own family.
The birth took place in an animal shed. This would have been nothing like our cute nativity sets or department store window display. The birth took place without a midwife surrounded by the odours and muck animals produce. The only assistance the young girl had was from her much older husband. Births like this happen today in refugee camps or with women fleeing persecution.
The first people to have any clue were shepherds sleeping with their sheep. Let’s not put too fine a point on this – shepherds were on the lowest rung of societies’ work force. They would have been uneducated and unwashed. God, however you want to refer to him/her, hand-picked these scruffs to welcome his/her presence.
The early Christians, running from persecution, or meeting in catacombs for fear of their life, would have well understood this story. The unaided birth in an animal shelter would have resonated with their own desperate situation.
However, when in the 3rd century AD the church became respectable and worse still wealthy, the story was sanitized and beautified. Over the centuries the Bethlehem event focusing on the teenage mother and baby have become the focus of sublime art and glorious music. These works have enriched all western culture. Bu, here is a problem here. The gritty thrust of the original story is diminished. The raw and shocking Christmas narrative has been domesticated.
We, all the world’s churches, have bought it the domesticated version. It serves our purposes to own this story and retell it as if we would have been there with the shepherds. Not on your life. Like everyone else we would have been sleeping. And as far as the meaning of this story – we still sleep.
I love this story because it says to me that everything we know of the Divine, the Almighty , the Word, is what God chooses to show us. It is always a gift. Those who claim to know a lot about these things may be expert in chapter and verse but still miss the meaning. The birth of Jesus saga tells me that understanding the Mystery that holds the universe together is to be found in unusual places and often by unusual people. This knowledge is always a gift. It is as Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.
Stan Stewart December 14, 2019