Text: Luke 1:26-38
On this day, in Christian churches all across this country’s landscape one message will resound: “For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” It is a beautiful and profound proclamation. The images of baby Jesus lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, with the Holy parents gazing sweetly at their infant lowly, while docile animals bow to welcome the newborn have captivated people, religious and non-religious, for generations. All of the great artists of the world have rendered their vision of the nativity. In prose and poetry the great writers of our time have sought to bring meaning and understanding to what took place in the stable this night so long ago.
“We know this story from the two sources in the New Testament: the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Although their accounts differ somewhat, both tell that Jesus was born from his virgin mother Mary in Bethlehem. Luke adds that Mary swaddled her newborn and “laid him in a manger.”(Mustafa Akyol) In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times titled Away in a Manger…Or Under a Palm Tree?, Mustafa Akyol draws attention to two other versions of Jesus’ birth. He writes:
…the early Christian narratives about the birth of Jesus — also called the Nativity — were more diverse. And there was even another religion that offered a take on this story: Islam.
A key Christian document that diverges from the gospels of Matthew and Luke on the Nativity is the Protevangelium of James—a “Gospel” that didn’t make it into the New Testament and thus remained “apocryphal.” Its purported author is James, the brother of Jesus, but scholars think that it was written generations later, sometime in the latter half of the second century. It is called a “protevangelium,” or “pre-Gospel,” because it highlights the life of the infant Jesus, which is not discussed much in the New Testament.
In the Protevangelium, we read that Jesus was born not in Bethlehem but somewhere in the “desert” between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Mary, according to this story, went into labor while riding between the towns. Her husband, Joseph, found a nearby “cave” for her and went out to Bethlehem to find a “Hebrew midwife.” When Joseph returned with her, Jesus was born. “My soul has been magnified this day,” the midwife said, according to James’s account, “because my eyes have seen strange things, because salvation has been brought forth to Israel.”
“But there is another source that locates the Nativity in the wilderness: the Quran. Many Christians may not be aware — especially in today’s confrontational political climate — but Islam’s scripture shows great adoration for Mary and Jesus, and tells their story in detail. Many aspects of this story are line with the New Testament: The Quran praises Jesus as the “messiah” and the “word” of God, and tells that he was born of Mary without a biological father. It narrates the Annunciation — when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus — similarly to the Gospel of Luke.
When it comes to the Nativity, however, the Quran differs from the New Testament. Mary, the Muslim text says, “withdrew to a distant place.” This seems to be in line with the Protevangelium of James. But the Muslim text goes on to describe a Nativity scene that isn’t found in the Protevangelium. In the Quran’s telling of the story, in the “distant place,” the pains of labor drove Mary to “the trunk of a date-palm.” A miraculous voice told her: “Do not grieve! Your Lord has placed a small stream at your feet.” Mary is told to eat from the dates of the palm tree, drink from the water and trust in God.
And so it is, in this narrative Jesus was born not in a manger in a stable but rather under a palm tree.
These two other versions of Jesus’ birth narrative, plus watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, got me thinking about the hidden messages in this story. And how might those overlooked/hidden parts be the message we need to hear today. In other words, how is this story speaking to our current historical context?
For centuries, Western Christianity has emphasized the Savoir part of the story. We have been taught that this child was born to save us from something—sin, from ourselves, from one another, from something that I have not quite figured out yet. And it is from that one line in the narrative—“For unto you is born this day in the city of David “a Savior”—that we have built and nurtured a Christmas theology that isn’t all that logical. We know from the rest of the story that Jesus didn’t save himself or his people from the powers of the empire. We know, from the rest of the story, that he was born not to serve as an earthly king and savior, but rather as a revolutionary itinerate preacher who would change the world with his subversive teachings of loving one’s enemy and praying for those who persecute you and the last being first and of a God who gives preferential treatment to the poor and the oppressed. So as much as we would like a “savior” to save us from all ills, it doesn’t quite fit the rest of the story.
Which raises the question for me: What messages from this Christmas narrative have we hidden because we have so desperately needed and looked for a savior? Hidden messages like: if we are to have hope in a despairing world, we must see ourselves as the incarnation of hope; or the message that the narrative of peace is not the absence of conflict or staying quite but rather a counternarrative that has us crying out in the streets for peace, and engaging in conflict with openness and kindness and understanding; or the message that we find our joy when we live out of our light, not out of our fear. Messages our theology has hidden, not the text.
Please don’t get me wrong on the eve of one of the most sacred days of our Christian narrative. I love hearing that beautiful and profound proclamation: “For unto to us is born this day in the City of David a Savoir.” I still have chills when I hear that glorious hymn: “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” (Sung from the balcony) There is a peace and warmth of spirit and soul that settles over me when I hear the story read of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (A child will read Luke 2:12) These are the messages I grew up hearing. They are profound affirmations of the narrative of my faith. As night falls on this day, there is nothing more holy than hearing the caroler’s voices sing: Silent night, holy night…But these are not the messages that deepen my faith. They are not the messages that compel me to live my faith today—to love my neighbor as myself, to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to love my enemies, to stand for justice-love.
It is the hidden messages or the hidden meanings in this Christmas story that compel me to be a Christian and a person of faith. Those messages and meanings that speak of the truth that we, too, are the incarnation of God; that we, too, can say “yes” to God being born in us just as Mary did; that we, too, can trust our dreams as Joseph did; and that we, too, can follow the light of God just as the shepherds and wise ones did.
There is another hidden message or meaning from Jesus’ birth narrative that I find most relevant for today’s historical and theological context: it is that of hospitality. We are listening to Jesus’ birth story in one of the most inhospitable times that our world, and definitely our nation, has seen in a generation. Instead of moving toward the kind of hospitality that both our faith and our country is built on, we are moving further and further away from God’s vision of God’s people being a hospitable, welcoming people.
As you move through the next 24 hours, consider the hospitality that Mary showed the angel Gabriel when he showed up at her doorstep in Nazareth and said, “Greetings, O favored one!” Consider the inhospitality of the inn keeper to that of the hospitality of the barn keeper and ask, “Is God calling us to be inn keepers or barn keepers?” When you raise your eyes to the heavens tonight, consider the hospitality of the stars in the sky that night that shone extra bright over the stable and ask, “How might we be more hospitable to the light within us and the light in our sister’s and brother’s of other faiths and of no faith?” Consider what might change if we stop looking for “a savior” and be more hospitable to God being born in us and through us and beyond us?
This Christmas may we reveal the hidden meaning of Christmas for today’s world and consider what will we risk, and how far we will travel in spirit and soul, and what we will give up in order to welcome the Christ that comes in the guise of a baby, and a stranger, and a homeless woman, and jobless father, and an undocumented dreamer, and a lonely teenager, and a differently gifted child.
And may you and yours have a very merry Christmas!