12.25.2009

The Christmas Story: It's Complicated


Even the most secular among us is often not offended by Christmas-themed references to the baby Jesus. After all, it's just a little baby. And, as Easter has become sanitized to encompass generic messages of hope and redemption, so has the little baby in the manger come to represent innocence and wonder.

And yet. The earliest readers of the Bible, while they may have gotten the warm fuzzies when they got to the baby Jesus stories, would invariably also have had to pause at a few of the details of the accounts. Consider that the gospel of Matthew, written to Jews, starts with a genealogy, which is not unusual; but it is a genealogy that includes women, which is highly unusual. And consider that each of the women included in the genealogy brought a little, shall we say, flavor into Jesus' lineage:

* Tamar dressed up as a prostitute and tricked Judah into sleeping with her;

* Rahab was a harlot and a non-Jew;

* Ruth was a non-Jew;

* Bathsheba was the woman King David slept with, and then, after finding out he had gotten her pregnant, he killed her husband to cover up his indiscretion.

There's a fifth woman in the lineage, of course. Mary was found to be with child even though she and Joseph weren't married yet. It took two angelic visits, one to Mary and one to Joseph, to convince the couple to soldier on, in spite of what must have been a growing amount of whispering and finger-pointing within their community.

To be sure, the gospel accounts tell of plenty of admirers of the baby Jesus - the shepherds, the wise men, Anna and Simeon. But it also speaks of an enraged and threatened king, Herod, who reacted to letting the baby Jesus slip out of his grasp by killing all the little boys two and under in the greater Bethlehem area.

This is quite a scandalous story, when you bring it all together. And, whether for a more ancient readership or for viewers from today, the ultimate complication to the innocence of the baby Jesus account is what that baby represents. If Easter means that mankind is so corrupt that drastic action must be taken: the Son of God must die to make it right. And Christmas is the bookend to that action: mankind is so corrupt that the Son of God must be born into this world to make it right.

I recall a recent debate by noted Sam Harris, an atheist, and Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic. I ended up appreciating Harris' words more than Sullivan's, because it appeared that Harris had read his Bible more thoroughly. Over and over again, Harris pointed out just how jarring and presumptuous were the claims of the Bible, and Sullivan often tried to soften those claims. But Harris is right: if you really read your Bible, you don't emerge with many saccharine, feel-good thoughts. Instead, you are left to consider the possibility that you are in need of a Savior, birthed not of a man-made narrative but one far more complicated and messy than that of our own lives, and far more dramatic and gripping than what any Hollywood director could conceive.

This Christmas, deep and meaningful religious consideration may be far from your mind. It's a four-day weekend, the kids are running around with glee because of all of the toys, and we can take a little breath after zooming around for so long. And, "holiday cheer," however artificial, at least causes everyone to be pleasant and cordial. But I encourage you to take a moment to consider the "Christ" in Christmas, to contemplate the baby born on the run to two young'uns, laid into a horse trough because there was no room at the local inn. However complicated the real Christmas story, it is a story worth considering this morning.

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