Merry? If you are, it’s despite the Church, according to one newspaper columnist. The Church, she claims, is guilty of hijacking winter solstice feasting with its invented birthday of a Middle Eastern carpenter.
That’s a salutary reminder that not all journalists stop to think, never mind check their facts, before going into print. The Church did indeed hijack winter solstice feastings for its own purposes. The birthday, though, was not invented. The stories of Jesus’ birth are wonderful, but may seem so unrealistic that the accusation that they were invented can easily be made. Invented or not, they are more than just stories.
They are stories with a purpose. They are stories that seek to provide hope for humanity by laying bare the truth about the human condition.
Luke highlights shepherds, the angel Gabriel and a manger as important parts of his story. It’s only Luke who mentions them. None of the other gospel writers do. Luke isn’t simply providing local colour to the story. He is using the conventions of his time to say something very important. The rabbis who came to question Jesus give us a clue as to how we can approach the stories. These rabbis loved to explore not only the law, but all the stories in their bible. They understood that when you want lemon juice, you’ve got to squeeze the lemon – hard! It was the same for them with the ancient narratives of the Hebrew Bible – so they squeezed every drop of meaning they could out of them. This exploration and squeezing is called “midrash.” Midrash makes the assumption that every word, even every letter, in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, has meaning. So rabbinic scholars spend their lives examining the text, trying out different interpretations, debating with others what the stories actually meant, why these particular stories were recorded in the Bible. The Bible for these scholars isn’t a dead text. It is very much alive, part of a conversation started by God – who expects the conversation to be kept going.
Luke had very good reason for highlighting Gabriel, the manger and the shepherds. Luke doesn’t actually say Jesus was born in a stable, but since there was no room at the inn, and he was laid in a manger after he was born, it’s a reasonable conclusion. The first humans to learn of this birth were shepherds. Both shepherds and stable are crucial to what Luke wishes us to understand.
Jewish sages tell the following story. A pagan once asked Rabbi Joshua ben Qarehah, “Why on earth did God choose a prickly thorn bush, a weed, as the place from which to speak with Moses?” The rabbi replied: “No matter which bush he had used you’d have asked me the same question. Why did he use a pomegranate bush? Why did he use a mulberry bush? Why did he use a bush at all? But I’ll tell you why he used a thorn bush. He chose the humble thorn bush to teach us that there is no place on earth where he is not. He can be found even in a prickly bramble.” So it matters that Jesus was born in a stable – to show that incarnation, God coming alive in humanity, isn’t something that happens in palaces or rich homes where ruling classes live or where people are found to be worthy. Incarnation takes place everywhere, in all peoples, in all communities, in all places – even a stable.
The shepherds matter, too. Isaiah describes God as a shepherd, one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.” Psalm 23 begins, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God, in other words, is the original good shepherd. Israelite kings, who were believed to be God’s representatives on earth, were similarly regarded as the shepherds of their people. King David is reminded by tribal leaders that God said to him, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”
This metaphor wasn’t confined to Israel. It was used throughout the Middle East to describe kings and commanders. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was described as “The good shepherd, vigilant for all people.” For Homer, the Greek poet, the military commander is the “shepherd of the hosts.” But perhaps more to our purpose, God calls Cyrus, the King of Persia, “My shepherd”. The Old Testament recounts that God anointed Cyrus to end the Babylonian exile by allowing the Jews to return to Israel.
What is the point of this shepherd metaphor? Why does being born in such an impoverished situation matter? Help comes from the most unexpected places, Luke is saying. From a baby born in a stable. From an enemy. God is at work in all humanity, not just in expected people in expected places.
But it is the appearance of Gabriel that is of most interest. Jesus taught that God is Spirit, to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. One of the Ten Commandments forbids the making of any images or statues or anything that could claim to be a likeness of God. Such a likeness simply isn’t possible. Very perceptive rabbis recognised early on that God has no material form; that those in their own and neighbouring countries who made likenesses of gods had got it quite wrong. These ancient rabbis came to describe God as light, as cloud, as remote and mysterious – yet amazingly intimate with humanity.
John, in his gospel, declares that Jesus was the Word made flesh. In other words, and rather more prosaically, Jesus was the immaterial God made material. By Gabriel’s message to Mary, Luke is telling us the same thing in a different way: Jesus, he is telling us, a very human baby, was filled with the Holy Spirit from conception, and that he grew up to be the mind of God in human form. St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians takes this a stage further, and assures his readers – and us – that we, too, can be filled with all the fullness of God.
This is what incarnation is all about. The divine spirit, the spirit of creation, is seeded, not just in Jesus, but in each human being, in each one of us. The God particle, if you like, is an inherent part of our make-up. This is what Jesus means when he talks of his dwelling in us and we in him. This is the greatest mystery and yet the utmost common sense. This divine seed is the source of our creativity, of our ability to empathise with each other, to reach out in love to each other, to be able to create community, to develop conscience, to gain wisdom, to recognise what is truly good and what is truly evil. It’s what makes us truly human.
It’s also the source of our hope for the future. We live in grim times. They may well get grimmer. Our hope lies in the reality that God lives within us, individually and corporately, encouraging us to use the gifts of creativity, of ingenuity, of wisdom, of insight, of empathy, of being able to perceive solutions to what seem insurmountable problems.