Beyond Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: What Now? A Little Q & A
David R. Weiss – December 20, 2020
Wednesday night I gave my presentation on “Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: Untangling and Untaming Christmas” to my church. I’m still on a learning curve with online presentations, and my talk ran 7-8 minutes long, but I’m told my “energetic presentation” kept folks engaged. The Q & A afterwards was good, though Zoom can be a bit clunky for back-and-forth dialogue, and I’m sure there were some sincere questions left unasked. Because Q & A is often the time when my gifts as public theologian—thinking about God out loud and in community with the faithful—really shine, I want to come back and address some of the likely unasked questions.
[If you missed my presentation or haven’t read my original essay, best to do that before reading this piece.]
A presentation like the one I just made sits differently with different folks. For itinerant skeptics, it confirms years of suspicions about the Christmas tales: they’re almost certainly early examples of “fan fiction,” not real history. While for those who regard these tales with deep wonder and devotion—often cultivated lifelong—that same recognition comes as unsettling or worse. For persons just beginning to integrate their critical adult thinking with simpler lifelong faith convictions, it can be an exhilarating yet disorienting rush. And for those who’ve embraced the justice/compassion-centered message of the adult Jesus, the message in my presentation can ring deeply and ecstatically true.
Of course, these aren’t “fixed” categories. I expect there were folks present last night who see themselves in one or more of them. Likewise, the unasked questions might come from any of these angles. So here are some brief thoughtful answers to unasked questions.
My goal, whether teaching in a college classroom or a church setting, is always to present knowledge in a way that can foster faith. Even when what I say challenges commonly held understandings, I offer it with the conviction that the healthiest faith we can hold is one grounded in the best understanding available to us. So, especially if you found your faith rattled by anything I said, I hope you’ll venture here to see if I address it further. One “spoiler” up front: I don’t think we should “cancel” Christmas or pack away our manger scenes; in fact, they’re more important than ever.
Here are the five questions I’ll respond to here:
- Are you really saying, No Magi bearing gifts, No Christmas Star, No Slaughter of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s Gospel?
- Are you really saying, No census, No trip to Bethlehem, No inn or manger, and no shepherds?
- But—if God IS God, couldn’t these stories have really happened the way they’re told?
- But why would the church have not taught us this sooner? Centuries—millennia!—of Christians have grown up taking them literally.
- So what are we supposed to do with Christmas now?
Let’s get started.
Are you really saying, No Magi bearing gifts, No Christmas Star, No Slaughter of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s Gospel?
Short answer: Yes.
There were Magi in the ancient world. But, as I say, Matthew’s Magi tale borders on fantastical-farcical satire-tragedy. Had any Magi truly visited Herod and then Jesus, there were surely be more than one solitary record of it. In communities where oral memory flourished, this would have been remembered.
There were heavenly wonders in the ancient skies: meteor showers, shooting stars, super novae, and “wandering” stars (planets) that occasionally “met up” in the skies, as Jupiter and Saturn are doing right now. Such wonders—that is, anything other than the pinpoint stars that drifted lazily across the sky in fixed patterns each night—were naturally sources of curiosity and speculation. Throughout history people have sought to connect them to historical events. Thus, almost every emperor’s birth tale mentioned some “heavenly portent” that “predicted” his birth. But the movements of the stars or the planets do not directly cause or predict earthly events. Not for emperors. And not for messiahs. It makes perfect sense for Matthew to feature a star in his story, even if there (almost certainly) was no super nova or planetary conjunction in the sky at the time of Jesus’ birth. Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s retroactively projecting the meaning of Jesus’ adult life back to his birth. And he does a masterful job of that.
And Herod was absolutely capable of slaughtering innocent children. His reputation for brutality helps make the symbolic connection with Pharaoh work, but it doesn’t make it fact. Enough stories of Herod terror-laden behavior have survived that it’s extremely unlikely that such a slaughter would’ve been covered up—certainly not in the memories of the Jewish people. But only Matthew knows this story—because it’s his creation.
So … no Magi, no Star, no Slaughter. But their historicity was never the point. Not for Matthew.
Are you really saying, No census, No trip to Bethlehem, No inn or manger, and no shepherds?
Short answer: Yes.
There were enrollments (censuses) in the Roman Empire; they were used to collect taxes and were often well documented. But there’s no record of this enrollment. Which suggests that Luke is using it for symbolic effect (its connection to oppressive taxes).
Bethlehem was known as the City of David, and there were a few Scripture passages that suggested a future messiah would come from Bethlehem. Because both Matthew and Luke share this notion of a Bethlehem birth it’s “possible” that Jesus was indeed born here, but it seems more likely that both of them (writing in the years 80-85 CE) chose to set Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because it linked him to David and the messianic hopes associated with David.
That means the inn (the upper/guest room) and the manger (Luke never mentions a stable) are almost incidental to the story. Far from making Jesus’ birth extraordinary, for Luke they actually serve to say that Jesus was born in the most ordinary way: in a crowded home, packed with extended family because of that oppressive taxation strategy. To a first century Jewish (or almost any Middle Eastern) peasant, the story exudes normal.
Of course, shepherds were commonplace in the world into which Jesus was born. So they’re also very much “at home” in a tale like this. But their role in Luke’s story (written 80 years after the birth—and with the knowledge that Jesushad grown up to challenge Caesar) was to show that when this child was born, it was the most lowly who received first notice. That’s something much more than history. It’s theology. And it echoes Elizabeth’s greeting and Mary’s Magnificat in declaring that the God so active in Jesus’ adult life is the same God who has always championed the least of these.
But—if God IS God, couldn’t these stories have really happened the way they’re told?
Well, Yes … but—
This gets into some really thorny questions about how we understand God, and how God acts in the cosmos, but I’m going to leave those for another day and just address the “Yes … but—”
First, the “yes”: I should be clear, there are conservative, even mainstream scholars who will “yes, absolutely!” But I’m writing for, speaking to, thinking with progressive Christians. I’m trying to help all of us (myself included!) wrestle faithfully—using both heart and head—with the story of God who is still speaking. So I’m drawing on really solid scholarship that I believe can help progressive Christians do this. I don’t find those conservative traditional arguments persuasive. More importantly, I think they end up missing the mark, distracting us from paying attention to what mattered most for Matthew, for Luke, and, indeed, for God.
So that’s my “but—”: To say that God could’ve done these things seems to miss the point. These stories were written to prepare us to learn about Jesus’ adult life of faithfulness to God and solidarity with God’s people, his miraculous compassion, and his determination to sow the seeds of a community that reflected his—God’s—vision for our life together. If THAT’S their purpose, then we may miss the point of Christmas altogether if we’re more interested in believing them as historical fact than in receiving them as rich symbolic introductions to the Gospels themselves.
The irony—and it’s really a sacred irony—is that once we recognize that, from the vantage point of history, nobody noticed when Jesus was born (and that’s why there are no historical accounts of his birth), THEN we can also recognize that Matthew and Luke have filled these birth tales, these Christmas overtures, with themes that help us meet the adult Jesus. And THAT’S the real miracle God is working at Christmas.
But why would the church have not taught us this sooner? Centuries—millennia!—of Christian have grown up taking them literally.
This is complicated. And I’m determined to be brief, so some of this answer will get filled out in future presentations. One part of it is that the early church, already by the end of the first century, was trying to reign in and “manage” the impact of Jesus’ ministry. His announcement of God’s kin-dom—God’s gracious embrace of the all of us—was shaping a new form of community. Yet we see efforts in some of the last Epistles written, to “roll back” Paul’s more radical notion of gospel equality and freedom for the early church.
A second part of the answer is that from the moment Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (312 CE) the church became a political tool used to unite the Roman Empire. Before long, from its now favored place within the corridors of power, the church became a sort of chaplain to the empire’s desire to secure order and maintain social relations blatantly at odds with Jesus’ message. This dynamic echoed throughout Europe’s era of colonialism and the U.S. expansion westward. The American church played a central role in the cultural genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. The church after Constantine and for the next 1700 years has had plenty of reasons to “bury” Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, so that Christian charity is prized, but the Christian pursuit of social justice is suppressed.
So this is about more than just Christmas. Why did (large portions) of the church cooperate with slavery right through the civil war? Why did the church effectively silence women for 1900 years? Why did it promote the condemnation and terrorization of LGBTQ persons for 2000 years? Why has the church consistently found it easier to endorse whatever war its home country is fighting than to stand alongside its “Prince of Peace”? Why did white evangelical Christians overwhelmingly support Donald Trump? I could go on, but I think I’ve made my uncomfortable point on two levels. First, if we’re honest, the church has been sorely mistaken about—no, it has betrayed the love of God on a whole bunch of issues over the past 2000 years. Second, in the big scheme of things, missing the mark on Christmas is a pretty small oversight compared to the other examples I just mentioned.
BUT—going a step further, in some very real ways the church’s preference to treat Christmas as a tale of holy wonder rather than an audacious overture to God’s gracious-risky-daring-unexpected embrace of the least of these, THAT MISSTEP helped—and still helps—prepare Christians to MISS the very power of Jesus’ life.
Alongside many lonely voices in every age (sometimes acknowledged as saints, sometimes condemned as heretics)—it has taken feminist and womanist voices, slave and black voices, queer and immigrant voices, poor and global voices, in recent years for us to begin to hear more clearly the power of Jesus’ life. This is why the UCC has chosen to affirm that “God is still speaking.” It is the honest recognition that we have much to still learn as we seek to be the church. And with the stakes so high in the multiple crises facing us today, being the church as faithfully as we can is more important than ever. How we celebrate Christmas is one part of that … and a pretty big part, if you ask me.
So what are we supposed to do with Christmas now?
Of course, that’s not entirely up to me, but I do have some thoughts on this. Foremost, we should NOT put away our manger scenes or hide the shepherds and magi. Matthew and Luke gave us these stories and filled them with faith-nurturing images. Our task is to make sure we access them.
We can—and ought—to be more honest about the powerful social justice imagery in these stories. That ought to be reflected in adult forums like this, but also throughout our Advent worship season and right into our Christmas liturgy. We can—and ought—to “re-true” these tales to the powerful message of Jesus’ life. That’s absolutely possible, and our discomfort in changing the way it’s always been celebrated is a real—but insufficient reason not to. This would take some thoughtful work, but there are persons already doing it, so we’d have company on this journey.
I don’t think we’d need to “forsake” all of our favorite Advent hymns and Christmas carols. In fact, by framing them in worship that had prayers, readings, and sermons that helped “untame” Christmas, these old familiar songs would find a new voice of their own. And we could balance them with other ones already in our hymnal, and some new ones as well, that help us sing the truth of Christmas yet more clearly.
And, I will say that I fully believe we could imagine a children’s Christmas pageant in which we catechize our children in the deepest truth of our faith by inviting them to re-enact the story in ways that help surface the meanings that Matthew and Luke put there. It could be done with sensitivity and creativity alongside audacity. Audacity is what Matthew and Luke display in their telling. It’s time we let it speak in our re-telling. Children are more than up to that. (Which might be why Jesus suggested they could show us the way to the kingdom of God.) I’m betting they could become the church and offer us a Christmas pageant more poignant and powerful than any we have ever experienced in all of our lives.
Now I’m getting ahead of myself. Bottom line: we have an opportunity to meet Christmas … in the spirit of Jesus. Doing so will almost certainly put us at odds with the Herods and Caesars of the word today. And we may find ourselves uncomfortably close to those at the edge—today’s hungry, lowly, outcast, oppressed, shepherds. But we might also … in the voices of children and also in the unexpected gracious yearning within our hearts … discover angels singing about glad tidings that promise to overturn the ways things are. And that song might sound like gospel as never before.
© David R. Weiss | 2020.12.20 | firstname.lastname@example.org
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.