The news out of the Middle East is relentlessly disheartening these days, but the other day I reread this amazing story from a while back about a child in the region whose birth was so threatening to his country’s ruling elite that the king slaughtered untold numbers of infants to make sure the boy would never grow up. Luckily, the boy’s stepfather learned of the king’s intentions in a dream, so he whisked his family away to exile in a neighboring country. Once the evil ruler died, the refugee family moved back to their homeland and settled near the Sea of Galilee, where a growing number of followers came to recognize the young man as the king of his people and, indeed, their savior.
The songs I hear in my local drugstore and on the radio tell me over and over again that Christmas is about joy. And, of course, it is. But that’s only half the story. The Christmas tale, which appears in only two of the four Gospels—in two very different versions—is a lot richer and more challenging than we generally choose to remember.
Every year around this time, I try to get my head and heart prepared for the holiday season. I ask myself what I should think about as Christmas approaches. What do I want to learn? How do I want to grow? I guess you could say it’s my personal version of Advent.
A year ago, I was so ill prepared for the season that I went to visit my good friend Frank McRae, who has studied the Old and New Testaments, to request guidance. He considered my question, went silent for a moment or two, and suddenly slammed his palm violently on the table. “He was born in a manger!” he yelled. “And yet they found him! Those three wise men didn’t let the humble surroundings distract them. They knew greatness when they saw it. It helped that they came from the East, from far away. They didn’t share whatever local prejudices there may have been against a child of humble parents in such humble surroundings.”
In one fell swoop, my friend turned my Christmas into a meditation on discernment, the need to see clearly, and to recognize goodness around us, in whatever shape or form.
In their wonderfully insightful book, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach Us About Jesus’ Birth, New Testament scholars Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan encourage us to understand the Christmas story for what it is: a parable, a metaphorical narrative whose truths lie not in its factual details, but in the multiple meanings we can find in it.
Of course, Jesus himself was famous for his parables, the best of which subverted conventional ways of seeing the world. These parables, Borg and Crossan write, “invited his hearers into a different way of seeing how things are and how we might live.” In other words, as invitations from Jesus to see differently, they were also opportunities for people to change their lives and circumstances.
Today’s popular Christmas stories are often sentimental and viewed through the gauzy lens of warm and fuzzy childhood memories. Unlike Easter, which more clearly invites believers to meditate on notions of sacrifice, repentance, and transcendence, Christmas is more likely to be focused on gift-giving family togetherness than on individual faith and transformation.
But the story of the birth of Jesus is clearly more than sentimental. It’s about the weak and the wise outsmarting the powerful. It’s about the humble and faithful turning the world upside down. As Borg and Crossan argue, these are not tales designed to safeguard the status quo.
So this year, as I celebrate the birth of Jesus with the ones I love, I will also be thinking about where exactly I stand in a world that clearly needs fixing, and whether I’m doing my part to help turn it upside down.
Because whether or not there has ever been a war on Christmas, the Christmas story is itself about conflict. And each December 25, we are given an opportunity not only to welcome joy into the world, but to declare which side we are on.