We love the Christmas stories, don’t we? Angels and shepherds, wise men following the star, bringing gifts, and of course the story of the birth of a baby. Growing up, seeing creche scenes with the wise men beside the shepherds, looking at the baby Jesus in the manger, I thought of it as one Christmas story.
Now I know that it is a combination of two quite different stories, one from Luke and the other from Matthew. The gospel according to Luke has the shepherds, the angel choirs, and the manger. The gospel according to Matthew has the wise men, following the star and bearing gifts. About the only characters they share in common are Mary, Joseph and Jesus. There have been diverse perspectives from the beginning.
As children we loved these stories, all rolled into one. They seemed magical. They also meant that we would, like the baby Jesus, be receiving presents – there are lots of reasons to love Christmas.
So, how do we feel about these stories as adults? Some of us here probably think that they are pure fantasy, like Harry Potter. Others think that a story with God in it can have just about anything happen, so, no problem; it’s all good. Perhaps some of us are in between those extremes.
From Pre-Critical Naiveté to Critical Thinking
Normally, as we grow up, we are first in a period of naiveté. Some call this the “pre-critical” period. We accept stories literally, unquestionably, from Santa Clause coming down to the chimney to a sleigh pulled through the sky by reindeer.
But then later, we enter the phase called critical thinking. In this stage we are no longer naive. We question. We measure stories against the ruler of our own life experience. First to go, for me, was the tooth fairy. In the conservative Christian home I grew up in, we never did take the Easter bunny seriously.
Thinking critically is crucial for life. We do not naively avoid stepping on cracks to prevent breaking our mother’s backs, but we, folks my age,, do make sure our mothers do not have to lift anything too heavy.
Critical thinking gave us science. Science gave us medicine and technology. Imagine the world before antibiotics and anesthesia, before electric lights and water purification systems. None of us would want to be born in to the world that Jesus was born into – especially not under those unhygienic and weather-exposed circumstances.
But critical thinking that has left behind the magical naiveté of childhood does distance us from the Christmas stories. Maybe, for some of us, it distances us from all stories that have God as a character in them. This sense of distance is quite common today. If you are a doubter, or a convinced unbeliever, you are in good company.
A 3rd Option: a second naiveté
But I want to suggest a third option. It is normal to be naive as a child, and it is important to be a critical thinker as an adult. But there is the possibility that you can grow into what some have called the post-critical, second naiveté.
In the second naiveté, you recognize that people tell stories for reasons. People tells stories to convey meaning. Sometimes, the meaning is right out there on the literal surface. The dog bit the man. Nothing deep about that.
But there are other kinds of stories that people tell because they convey depths of meaning that cannot be sounded by a literal account. Like the politics behind Humpty Dumpty. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men do not come off too well in that one. It’s not an egg-man story. The meaning is deeper.
If you are of a mind to accept the Christmas stories on the naive literal level, that’s fine. But if your adult mind simply cannot suspend disbelief about angel choirs and moving stars, or even about virgin births, you may want to ask yourself, why would anyone write these stories these ways.
It’s Because of Jesus
It turns out there are lots of reasons. It all starts with the main subject, the baby. People were so taken by Jesus, the adult man, that when they came to trying to describe his significance in their lives, they had to tell it this way.
Jesus was someone who exuded a deep connection with God, or with Spirit, or the Divine, or whatever you want to call it. He was so grounded, so at peace with himself, so un-needy, the way most of us are needy, for attention, for status, for approval, for achievement according to the success-meter of the day, that he was totally open to others – all kinds of others. Even diseased ones; even lepers – he even touched them. Even poor ones – which were most of his people, though not all. Even foreign ones – Romans, Samaritans, Syro-phoenicians. There was no one he excluded, no one he discriminated against. He was different; he was amazing!
Jesus was not just impressive in his own spirituality, his teaching was transformative. In a world in which most people believed that the gods were unpredictable and ill mannered, Jesus related to God as you would to the perfect parent – expecting to receive good things, in fact, love.
In a world in which most people who believed in one God, thought that God was mad at them and needed a sacrificial animal to get over it, Jesus taught that God was like a shepherd who searched night and day to find one lost sheep, and on finding it, brought it back with rejoicing. No fear; no sacrifice; no barriers.
So, Jesus’ lived connection with the Divine, with God, and his teaching about the Divine, or God, and how we relate was profound for people – in fact it was transformative.
Symbols of Significance
So how do you convey that? You can do it in dry prose the way I just did. Or you can write into the story angel choirs in the sky, bursting into Gloria’s, proclaiming peace on earth, celebrating the auspicious birth to poor, lowly shepherds.
You write about a light in the sky because Jesus turns the lights on for you. You feel as though you have had a kind of enlightenment. Like a star, guiding you to goodness, to truth, and to beauty.
You come to understand that this story, about a person who completely refused to take the path of violence, could be the way to peace on earth, for all the earth. So you tell of wise men from across the world coming to pay homage, offering gifts befitting royalty.
In a world in which the political powers, Rome’s Caesar, actually accepted the titles of Savior, Son of God, bringer of peace on earth, you give those titles to a newborn child. Because he will grow up to champion another kingdom, an alternative to Rome’s brutality and oppression.
He will come announcing the kingdom of God, in which God’s will can be imagined as being don on earth, as it is in heaven. A world in which the hungry are fed and the sick people have health care. A world where the ones who hoard wealth for themselves and ignore the common good are called fools. A world in which good news is proclaimed to the poor.
So how can you tell the story any other way? Well John manages to tell it another way, with the eternal Word, or Logos, becoming enfleshed in a human – but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, perhaps this Christmas we can be open to the second naiveté, to hear in these fantastic stories a message and a meaning that is powerful in our day, in our context.
Perhaps the birth of a baby, with all its attendant hope and promise, is the best way to imagine the possibilities open to us. Perhaps if we encountered Jesus and Jesus’ experience of the Divine, the way these writers did, we too would be telling stories of wonder and amazement.
Yes it is good to have a critical mind. Thank God for science. But there is a bigger story to tell than science can give us.
Science can tell us that our universe is nearly 14 billion years old, but it cannot tell us why we are here.
Science can tell us that we evolved from simple life forms, but it cannot tell us what life means.
Science can tell us why the light in the sky appears to change colors at sunrise and sunset, but not why we feel so awed, so moved every time; or why we feel the urge to say “Thank you!”
So, let us keep telling these stories of Christmas, the stories of what happened on on that silent night, a holy night, with hearts open to a second naiveté, open to a meaning beneath the surface, where perhaps we can be renewed in our hope for peace on earth, and good will to all people.