Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

Dad couldn't wait to tell me about the book he was reading. A great lover of Christmas and the Christmas season, Dad had bought a copy of The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, by Raymond E. Brown. This weighty tome showed that the gospels were written in reverse, beginning with the faith of the post-Easter community. Events furthest from that moment in time were the least likely to be based in fact. The infancy narratives, therefore, are not historically reliable, but were rather carefully crafted from pre-existing materials to bolster the theological arguments of the later Christian community.

I loved Brown's book as well, and tried to integrate its message into my teaching and preaching. Bible study groups focusing on the themes in the book were fairly successful. These smaller groups of committed members generally appreciated knowing where the images and concepts woven together from Matthew and Luke originally came from.

The Christmas Eve service was another story. Two times in 30 years of ministry I tried to introduce, in some fashion, the notion that the lovely Christmas story hadn't necessarily happened the way we told it in our lessons and carols. Huge mistake. Nobody is interested in decent biblical scholarship on Christmas. Or Easter for that matter. People are interested in coming to church in droves and hearing the familiar narratives in word and song. Don't mess with it.

There's an image in Asian stories of riding a tiger... doing so keeps you safe from the tiger's wrath, and can help you cover miles and cross obstacles... just don't try to get off the tiger. I view Christmas and Easter as the progressive church's tigers. We know more than the literal accounts convey, and hate to sound exactly like the literalists down the block proclaiming December 25th as Jesus' birthday, but we can't stop. We can't get off the tiger. There are too many attenders who want us to feed them that lovely simple story. We can't disappoint them by telling the truth instead.

Like my Dad, I have loved Christmas. I used to bristle at commercialization and get on my high horse about secularized images like Santa and Frosty. These days, I don't have so much trouble with the hawking of baubles and the proliferation of parties. They're intended for fun and frolic, and are fairly honest about it. Perhaps more honest than those of us "upholding the tradition".

Oh yeah, Merry Christmas.

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