By the Rev’d Lucy Nguyen
Season: Christmas Day
Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-20
This year, in the weeks before Christmas, if I’ve been on for preaching, I’ve reminded the gathered that not all the Gospels tell the stories we’ve come to hold dear at Christmas time. Mark’s Gospel has no mention of the Nativity, and yet here we are, Christmas morning, firmly committed to Luke and the Nativity.
So no way to not mention it today – we are surrounded by images of the “much-loved nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (perhaps with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three colourfully-dressed men stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
While we see this image everywhere writer John T Squires reminds us that “it is not an accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born. It is not a photograph of an actual event. Far from it. It is not even based on a written report from the first century, telling that this was what happened.
The traditional scene that we see today did not come into being until it was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist. No Gospel account actually tells of cows cooing beside the newborn child, or of the newborn infant making no crying sounds, or of the sheep baaing alongside the cows, that we see in the traditional nativity scene.
The scene is a compilation of two quite discrete stories, told decades later, offering very different perspectives on the event, providing two somewhat different emphases in the story of the birth of this child. The nativity scene merges and blends the story found in the orderly account constructed by Luke, and the book of origins compiled by Matthew. Wise men and shepherds sit on each side of the family group at the same time, in the same place, in this traditional scene. But not in our biblical accounts.
But I think this morning, perhaps you’re not here for a biblical history lesson. What we can acknowledge is that the combined story of Luke and Matthew has entered the popular mindset as a real event and provides a clear and compelling picture of the holy family, perhaps not quite as you imagine. In scripture, from where we draw our text, they are presented as refugees because of decisions made by political authorities.
And the people chosen to be the first visitors on this auspicious occasion were shepherds. Shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considered impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. They were not highly valued guests!
Even though the nativity is not an exact historical story, the nativity, the birth story of Jesus, is part of the foundational myth of the Christian faith. And it is important for life choice reasons as it points us in the direction of where our faith and spirituality should develop. If we are celebrating Christmas and caught up in the nativity story, we cannot ignore themes being developed by the writer of Luke. He develops a strong political and economic message throughout his Gospel: God reached out to the poor and powerless, and harshly judges the wealthy and powerful.
As myth, the tradition points to important truths.
Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus throughout his ministry. He grounds the message of the gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day and we believe also for us today.
The Christmas story is worth celebrating, not as an actual historical event, in the way it is traditionally portrayed, but as the foundation of the faith that we hold: in Jesus, God has come to be with us, whoever, however, we are. And God has come with a very particular message about how we are to be one to another.
God is with us for a purpose – love – a love which continues to both comfort and challenge us long after the decorations have been put away.
Enjoy the story, celebrate, have a rest, take a break – find hope in the story of God breaking into the world in this way.
And take note of the insights we are given in how we are to live our lives and how we are to respond to the needs of others.
And post-holidays, meet you back here or perhaps online if you’re visiting as we continue to seek to take the truth of the myths, put faith into action and receive afresh the never-ending love we all seek. Welcome the prince of peace now and always. Merry Christmas. Love is born anew! Thanks be to God.