Each year in our town we seem to find more and more Christmas Concerts on the social calendar. One of their consistent themes is to try and answer the need to return to a sense of Christmas being a special feeling and, inevitably descends into sentimentality and schmaltz. This derives from the sagging momentum of the German-style Christmas imported by the Victorians and, behind that, an awe-and-wonder reading of the sacred texts of Christmas.
To rescue Christmas from this increasingly wearying regression, we need to look again at the sacred texts in a way that invites us to be partners rather than spectators. Spectators see stars and magi, prophecies from long ago, squadrons of angels in the heavens and at the centre, a birth which is miraculous because it did not require the conventional preliminaries. All we can do, in the face of stories like this, is to exclaim that God is clever. Faced with our own inability to recreate such signs of wonder, our faces are pressed against the window of supernatural pyrotechnics and we come away empty-handed.
The stories of the supernatural birth of Jesus take on a different light when we consider them as part of a literary genre of the ancient world. There were many and various such stories, none more famous than the story of Augustus Caesar, born to his mother Atia and the god Apollo. Typically such birth stories came at the conclusion of the telling of the great deeds of an individual which must have been conceived in no less than the heavens. Augustus had brought the end of civil war and the longest period of peace that could be remembered. Although the Pax Romana was only felt if you were Romana, leaving the peasant classes impoverished, nonetheless it did not stop him being entitled Prince of Peace, while the coins of the empire styled him Son of God. When his biographer, Suetonius, concluded the story of his life he appended the story of Apollo coming to Atia in the temple and impregnating her. Ten months later, Atia’s husband dreamt he saw the sun rise from her womb and indeed the new Caesar would be born of Atia and the God of Light and be proclaimed Light of the World.
At the end of Augustus’s reign, there began the life of another man whose followers felt his life was patterned after the way of the heavens, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew. Not the heavens of the brute force of Rome, but the heaven of a God who had made a good earth and had promised a land to a nation in which all should enjoy its fruits. This man met violence with peace, met poverty by organising people to share food, and met sickness with healing. This, said his followers, must surely be what a god does. On the day this man rode into Jerusalem, to the acclaim of crowds, the Roman authorities took one look at him, decided he was trouble and executed him, in the manner where they put dissidents on public display to warn others what happens when you cross Rome’s rule.
But his followers continued to experience his presence and the movement spread. In time his story was written and, quite late on in the process, stories of his divine conception were told. His destiny was described in terms of heroes of the past, Matthew used the stories of Moses, Luke the story of Samuel, and the titles Lord, Son of God, Prince of Peace. In other words, these birth stories were treason; if you said Jesus was Lord, you were saying that Caesar wasn’t.
We need this view of divinity now, as never before. The majority of our world is malnourished, and since 1945 we have come to the end of being able to use violence as a solution; we need this view of the sacred which is non-violent before we go up in a nuclear flash.
Christmas is not about trying to explain wondrous events, as if they literally happened, in the vain hope they can be repeated in our own day. They are narrative aids, both to subvert the birth stories of the leaders of empire, and point to a much more important truth that the life of this man is the pattern for how humanity might shape itself to become like the realm in the heavens, the Kingdom of God on earth.