The Christmas story has impacted my life more than any other story I’ve ever heard. All the other stories I love deeply are somehow a retelling of the Christmas story. The essence of the Christmas story is this: Love shows up in an unexpected place and an unexpected person in an unexpected way and challenges the arrogance, conceit and control of the cruel, the powerful, and the violent. Retold in various ways this story is also The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, and A Wrinkle in Time, and The Wizard of Oz, and The Hunger Games, and others. Dressed in these different clothes, most people get the story. But with Christmas, a lot of people still miss the point. I can’t believe so many people still get this story wrong. It’s a simple story. And a revolutionary one.
There’s two ways people get the Christmas story wrong. One is theologically. Baby Jesus is the sacrificial lamb being born. This baby will grow up to be killed, his life offered (or taken) as a sacrifice to God so that God won’t hate humans so much and send them to hell for eternal punishment. This is the substitutional atonement theology story where Jesus is like a dove or lamb or other animal slaughtered in the temple so that God will forgive our sins. I can’t stand substitutional atonement theology because it requires a mean, petty God with anger issues. God can’t love me unless some other guy is tortured to death? Really? There’s a way people tell the Christmas story where the most joyful thing about Jesus’ birth is that soon he will die and God will love us again. For some people, the Christmas story has no meaning unless the baby grows up to be killed for our sins. This not a story of a loving God. This is not unconditional love. This is a love with all kinds of rules and conditions. This is not a story of Love defeating the cruel, powerful, violent powers of the world. In this version of the story, God IS the cruel, violent, power.
The other way the people get the Christmas story wrong is getting hung up on whether or not the story is factual. For some people, the story must be literal, just like it’s described or else it has little value or meaning. This is horrible biblical scholarship. For other people the story is obviously not factual and therefore has little value or meaning. This is also horrible biblical scholarship. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has said,
“My point once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
It’s such a fantastic story, isn’t it? A virgin gave birth. Kings followed starlight to a stable. Angels appeared to shepherds, sang a song and told them to find the same stable. The angels said this baby was the Messiah of the Jews. To get stuck on either side of the debate about whether or not these plot points are historical facts is to miss the story entirely.
The Christmas story is a powerful story not because it tells of the birth of a sacrificial animal nor because it is literally true. The Christmas story is powerful because it is nothing short of Revolutionary. Yes, REVOLUTIONARY. And even as a revolutionary story, it is revolutionary.
The Jews of first century Palestine lived in a backwater of the Roman Empire. Their lives were dominated by a police state that considered them inconsequential. Jewish lives did not matter. The Jewish people were so oppressed, they were, indeed, actually looking for a Messiah, a savior. They thought, however, that this would be a political and military savior; someone to save them from the empire. Some of them heard the news, which they considered very good news indeed, of a wandering rabbi who was not preaching armed revolution, but a love revolution.
Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? You can’t defeat a militarized occupation by turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. Or can you? What if turning the other cheek wasn’t about just letting people beat on you, but standing up for yourself without violence? What if loving your enemies didn’t mean what they do is always acceptable? What if? What if we fed the hungry? Cared for the sick? Included people our own religion says are unclean and not valuable? What if we ignored the religious rules and the religious authorities? What if we were more concerned with loving and caring for each than about keeping the religious rules? What if we change the rules? What if? What if instead of the empire of Rome, there was an empire, a kingdom, a kin-dom, a commonwealth of God? An actual Beloved Community? What if?
This rabbi is born in manger. Not a stable. Most likely a cave on the outside of the city walls, amid animal dung and dirty straw. The first people who show up to visit the birth are shepherds sent by an angel. Shepherds were the lowliest of the low, virtually untouchables, on the bottom of the social hierarchy. The sheep’s lives were more valuable. Angels are messengers of God, literally that’s what the term means, messenger. Are they supernatural beings with wings and halos? Who knows? It doesn’t matter – in this story God (all that is good, sacred, kind and compassionate in the universe) somehow sends messengers to tell shepherds that a savior is born in a dingy, dirty cave to homeless parents forced to relocated by the government. What do they find? A baby.
Rich, powerful guys – kings even – show up and say they’ve been looking for the baby. Say what? I bet they were surprised to end up in a dark, dank cave with a homeless kid, but that’s where they ended up. They give the baby presents. Really valuable presents. I assume the gold bought the parents an actual room the next night. But I bet they had to spend the rest of it when they had to smuggle the kid out of the country because another king wanted to kill him. As refugees, they leave their home country to save the baby’s life.
The baby and his family are back home by the time he’s 12. We don’t hear much about him after that until he’s a grown man and starts hanging out with a religious fanatic. Eventually he goes off on his own and begins talking to people about how to lead a decent life and how to treat each other and how to pray. And he heals folks. Lays his hands on them or just says the word and they are cured of physical and spiritual and psychological demons. Miracles? I guess. For real or just symbolic? Either way you need to see it. That detail doesn’t matter. The healing does.
It’s not the saving most people were looking for, this teaching about kindness and compassion. The healing was impressive. They didn’t know how he did it. Still don’t. Eventually the empire doesn’t like him talking in ways that inspire people to stand up for themselves, consider themselves worthy of dignity and respect. If everyone started thinking they were as good as Romans, what next? So they labeled him a terrorist and killed him as a revolutionary. A criminal and threat to the empire. Isn’t Love always a threat to empire? You bet.
Revolutionary. People continued his teaching after he is killed. The people drawn to this message were largely the left out and the ignored: Women, slaves, the poor, the powerless. So when they told the story of this rabbi, they told it in a way that would tell those who heard it that their story was a story for the least, the lost, and the left out. They told the story of shepherds and the reality of being homeless, refugees, and expendable people. They told the Christmas story. They told a revolutionary story. And the people who first heard it, heard it as such.
I can’t believe so many people still don’t get this story. Luke Skywalker uses The Force to defeat the Empire. We get that. Meg and Charles Wallace warp time and space to use love to defeat “It.” We get that. Meek little Dorothy overthrows the Wicked Witch. We get that. Katniss, the girl from nowhere, brings down the powerful Capitol. We get that. Frodo the lowly Hobbit and his band of followers bring down the evil of Sauron. We get that. Baby Jesus? A lot of people still miss it.
Even when it shows up in real life, people still miss it. A guy in a single piece of homespun cloth nonviolently brings down the British Empire. An unknown Black minister uses boycotts and marches and non-violence to force action on civil rights legislation. Sometimes love is crucified and killed. But this doesn’t make God happy. When Love is murdered, so is God. But love resurrects every time we tell the story – and every time we live it.
Fiction or nonfiction, it’s the same story. The story of Love as revolutionary force for good. It doesn’t matter if the story is full of factual details or not. The story’s job isn’t to get us to believe virgins can have babies. The story’s job is to tell us that everyone deserves dignity and respect, even those people others would have us leave out. The story’s job is to tell us Love shows up in strange places, in strange clothes, and may not be what we were looking for. The story’s job is to tell us as powerful as hate and empire and violence and oppression may seem to be, they are not going to win. The story tells us Love has arrived and Love is going to win. Whenever and however the story is told, Love wins. That’s the story and that’s still revolutionary.