A good question: What does the Christmas Story mean?
One question, four answers
‘Christ submitted to the wounding that is the human condition’
A few years ago, my wife Linda and I were in church late one Saturday afternoon. The church door was open. Two obviously tired people came in, a man and a woman. They were untidy and poorly dressed in flimsy shoes. It turned out that they had walked many miles to obtain some proof of the woman’s identity so that she could claim certain benefits. They were temporarily lodged in a hostel in a town ten miles away. They had walked into the inner city and were now on their way back. They could not afford bus fare.
Linda washed the woman’s feet which were sore and bleeding. Then we took them home and made sure that they were catered for. Both people had long histories of illness. Neither had ever been able to work. Each had long since lost any real home. But what they had not lost was the sense that the Church was somehow their home. When they saw that open door, they felt sure that they were going to have some assistance.
What is the Christmas story and how do we give it a context to locate and implement our practical theology? Where is the incarnate Christ and how do we access the love of God in Christ Jesus? At Christmas time, we naturally think about those less fortunate than ourselves. Those who are homeless and without much cheer. In his flesh, our Lord was no stranger to suffering and to pain. He did not take the path of being different in condition from anyone else. He could have exercised his powers to float serenely through this vale of tears untroubled but he chose not to…
David Isiorho is the Vicar of St James, Handsworth, in Birmingham
‘It depends on which story we are talking about’
What the Christmas story means depends on which story we are talking about. It is better to reflect not on the general muddle that we often turn into a nativity play or a carol service, but on the specific, artfully told stories of either Matthew or Luke.
Luke’s version is generally better known (Mary, the shepherds, hints of a stable, as well as much-loved set pieces like the Magnificat). All the more important then, to take the time to dwell with Matthew’s telling. Here are the wise men and the massacred innocents, the ‘flight to Egypt’, as well as several scriptural quotations and even more scriptural allusions. Here is a Joseph whom God talks to in dreams, a child rescued from a murderous king just as Moses once was, and a world full of threat, persecution and rescue. The more closely you read it, the more richly layered this extraordinary text seems.
It’s as though the reader hears someone say: ‘You remember how once we were slaves in Egypt, our children murdered and our people exploited? Remember how God came to our rescue then and brought us to a land of promise? And do you remember how once we were deported to exile in Babylon, taken away to a place where it was hard even to sing hymns? Remember how God brought us back home then? Well, God has done and is doing this again. God comes to be with us even in the midst of suffering and sadness now. The one called Jesus, who is called ‘God with us,’ is the fulfilment of those older stories. He is so deeply connected with the stories you already know that we can tell his story using echoes of these. And he is so much a fulfilment of these stories that they foretell his.’ …
Susan Durber is the Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
‘It is a microcosm of Gospel conflict’
The New Testament opens with a story of conflict. It is a political conflict. By any standard, King Herod was a vicious ruler, yet in Matthew’s Gospel he is frightened. He feels threatened – not by another ruler, not by an army, not by his masters in Rome. He is frightened of a baby.
Herod tries to fool a group of astrologers (not three kings) into passing on information about Jesus, but they are warned and outwit him. They proclaim Jesus, not Herod, to be king. In his desperation, Herod inflicts the unimaginable horror of a massacre of children. But Jesus survives.
The story has been distinctly odd even before Herod appears. We have a Jewish couple who look set to break up when Mary becomes pregnant. But Joseph is told that Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Instead of feeling shame or outrage, he trusts her and goes through with the marriage. Social and family norms are overturned. No ‘traditional family values’ here. Jesus had two fathers.
We are presented with contrasting images of kingship. … Since the fourth century, when the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity, many churches have shown more affinity with the sort of power represented by Herod than with the upside-down kingship of Jesus. Few elements of Christianity have been domesticated more thoroughly than Christmas. …
Symon Hill is a Christian author and activist. His latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence (DLT, 2015)
‘The central event of history’
The Christmas season produces mixed feelings in people. Some see it as a magical, romantic time of year with children playing in the snow, open fires, trees, decorations and an abundance of food. On the other hand, for some, it’s a painful time of year, when they remember the loss of loved ones and perhaps experience greater loneliness.
For many it’s time when they overindulge, putting on weight they will try to lose a few weeks later. When they overspend, only to be left with debts in January. And when many are over demanding, putting pressure on marriages and on relationships in general.
So what is it really all about? CS Lewis captures it best when he says: ‘At Christmas we remember the central event in the history of the earth, the very thing the whole story has been about.’ That central event is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came into the world to reconcile people to God – a restored relationship – through his sinless sacrifice upon the cross; three days later to rise from the dead. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes eternal life as knowing God and his Son Jesus Christ. Christmas is ultimately for knowing God.
The Angels announced Jesus birth with these wonderful words: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ So simple and yet so profound, peace with God leading to peace with each other, and all made possible by the coming of Jesus Christ. …
Steve Uppal is the Minister of All Nations Church, Wolverhampton
These are extracts from the December 2016/January 2017 edition of Reform.
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