As the Carol proclaims: Christmas is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. It is a time for joviality, family celebration, and a revival of religious fervour. And despite the decline of religion in the western world, the Christmas crib adorns many a public space, symbolising a birthing of new life, and an awakening sense of hope in our endarkened world.
The central message is about the birthing of God in our world, Christmas: Birthing possibilities for both child and adult the God of unconditional love, coming close to the people and inviting us, too, to birth forth a world that will offer greater joy and hope to all God’s creation.
A celebration of inclusive hospitality
Families welcome loved ones coming home for Christmas, often from places far away. Despite the fact that John’s Gospel asserts that Jesus came to his own and his own received him not (Jn.1:11), the contrary was probably the truth.
Even if Jesus was born out of wedlock, which is how people would have understood the event in the real world of that time, Jewish hospitality was such that Joseph, and members of Joseph’s family would ensure that she gave birth in a safe place, with the attendant medical and human supports that would have been available.
Therefore, in all probability Jesus was not born in a shepherd’s cave, but in a house provided by Joseph or by his close friends. In the social context of that time, normally everybody slept in one room, yet visitors, including unexpected ones were always accommodated.
They would have been put in the downstairs section where the animals were also housed. Therefore, portraying Jesus in a crib surrounded by animals like a donkey, a cow, some sheep, may well be factually accurate.
The crib also describes a scene of two groups extending a special welcome to the newly arrived infant-God: Shepherds, and Wise Men (erroneously described as kings). Shepherds played an important role as sheep minders, and yet were viewed in a rather negative light, often regarded as social outcasts and in some cases considered ritually impure; their inclusion in the crib provides an unambiguous declaration that a new era of radical inclusivity is about to begin.
Similarly with the Wise Men, probably best described as soothsayers, specialising in reading the stars to guide humans through their earthly journey in a variety of different ways. They would have been viewed at the time with a mixture of awe and strangeness.
In the crib they symbolise inclusivity of cosmic wisdom, stretching the new born wisdom far beyond the traditional view of the one who came mainly (if not exclusively) to save sinful humanity. Humans, young and old, animals, shepherds, soothsayers, and even angels are all together in this amazing horizon of original hospitality and a radical inclusivity that was largely unheard of in the world – then or now!
The birthing breakthrough
According to the prevailing understanding in the Christian tradition, Christmas marks the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, God’s first entry into our human world, the beginnings of salvation for sinful humans.
And a reminder of the God who will come again at the end of time to judge the world and bring the reign of sin to an end. For a growing body of adult Christians today, this is an understanding of our Faith that is rapidly losing all sense of credibility.
It is perceived to be too narrowly human (as if nothing else in creation matters to God), too negative (what about the goodness of God visible in so many features of creation), and too reductionistic (in terms of the God who has been in work in creation for billions of years, in accordance with the time frames of modern science).
The Christmas story lends itself to several deeper meanings, beyond the literal interpretation of both the Gospels and the inherited Christmas story. Let’s begin with the statement: The virgin will give birth (Matt.1:23 – compare with Is.7:14).
Matthew bases his assertion on a text from the book of Isaiah, and applies it to Mary alleging that her pregnancy has been made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah, the Hebrew word employed is almah, not Betula which would mean virgin in a literal biological sense.
Almah has a totally different meaning, and needs to be understood in mystical, archetypal terms rather than literally. It denotes a young woman fertile and potentially creative to give birth to stars, galaxies, planets, animals, humans, and everything else in creation.
The virgin is a symbol of divine creativity across the entire web of life, but also includes the normal human process of sexual reproduction and the birthing power of women in particular. “Conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20) is another grossly misunderstood statement.
Since the Spirit is the wellspring of all creative energy in the universe, every process of coming to birth, human and non-human alike, is the work of the Holy Spirit. In the human realm, the Holy Spirit is central to every act of love-making, and to every human pregnancy and birth process.
Therefore, the Christmas narrative invites and challenges us to take birthing seriously as a primary way in which God works in our world. The great mystic Meister Eckhardt one time asked: “What does God do all day long?” And he adds: “God lies on a maternity bed giving birth all days long.”
If Christian theology had adopted the metaphor of God as a Great Birther, rather than as a Ruling King, we would have a very different theology today, and a very different understanding of our Faith as a Christian people.
From Jesus the child to the adult Jesus
Christmas is very much a season for children, with the focus on Santa Claus and the childlike fascination of the child in the crib. In a world where so many children are undernourished and abused, and brutalised by violence and so many forms of oppression, we can be rightly proud of how we make Christmas so special for children.
However, there is a shadow-side to this focus on the child, one that has done considerable damage to our faith as adult believers.
Over the centuries, in Christianity (and in other religions too), the ideal disciple and believer has been admonished to trust God, and rely on God with childlike simplicity, and by implication to behave accordingly in how we live out our Faith as adults.
The good Christian therefore, was commended and admired for being humble, loyal, obedient, and subservient to God and to God’s representatives on Earth. For much of the history of Christianity, therefore, passive obedience was considered to be a supreme virtue.
This is quite a distortion, and a disturbing departure, from the vision and mission of Jesus as outlined in the Gospels. The Gospel vision of the Kingdom of God, the Sermon on the Mount, the liberating and empowering strategy of the parable and miracle stories, all point to an adult Jesus inviting adult people into proactive adult discipleship.
There is no room in this vision for the kind of co-dependency (childlike passivity) that has been so often preached and taught in the name of Jesus. To the contrary, all Christians are called forth as friends, not servants, to be co-disciples with Jesus in cocreating a better world marked by love, justice, liberation, and empowerment.
Integrating the adult in our celebration of Christmas
While we love our children and make Christmas special for them, let’s not forget the adult believer, for too long condemned to childlike co-dependency. The infant of the Christmas crib needs the tender care which everybody deserves, child and adult alike.
Let’s not forget, however, that this infant figure of our Christian faith is the outcome of a birthing universe, destined to give birth to a new world of Gospel liberation and empowerment. Central to that project are people who live out their faith in committed adult allegiance.
While we continue to celebrate with our children, let’s hope that this Christmas will also help to awaken, and reinforce, the call to adult discipleship, so urgently needed in the Church and world of our time.