Last week I asked what it would mean for us to consider the Christmas story not as history, but as mythology. We began by looking at Matthew’s nativity narrative. This week I want to look at Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus.
The writer of Luke’s Gospel fills up most of his first two chapters with the births of both John the Baptiser and Jesus. From the very beginning, he gives a wholistic vision of the salvation that Jesus brings. For Luke, salvation is not just a spiritual reality. It is political, social, ecological, relational, economic, and physical as well. We need to keep this in mind as we read about Jesus birth. It is particularly important to notice how the salvation of Jesus, summarised in the phrase ‘the kingdom of God,’ contrasts with the Roman Empire.
In this year of pandemic, protests for racial and gender justice, and a highly contested US election, a mythological reading of Luke can be both inspiring and challenging. This post won’t have space to explore every detail of Luke’s narrative. I hope I will be forgiven for lifting out some of the best-known parts and skipping over others.
Let’s begin with the things we expect to see in Luke’s narrative that just aren’t there. There are no magi, as in Matthew’s Gospel. You also won’t find a star, Joseph’s dreams, the prophecy from Isaiah, or the name ‘Emmanuel.’ But perhaps the most startling thing is that there is nothing about Joseph wanting to divorce Mary privately. In fact, in Luke’s gospel, Joseph hardly features at all except to give context to Mary’s story.
In Luke’s Gospel, you also won’t find a stable. There’s a manger, so we have assumed that Jesus was born in a stable. But the most probable scenario is that Mary and Joseph stayed with relatives who already had someone in their guest room. The family had to sleep in the part of the house where the animals would have been kept at night. And so when Jesus was born, the most readily available crib was the manger.
This may all be interesting. But it’s not particularly important for Luke’s agenda. What is more important to Luke is who is missing at the scene of Jesus’ birth. At the start of Chapter 2, the writer makes a point of mentioning all the important people in the region at the time of Jesus’ birth. And not one of them was even aware of what was happening. And apart from John’s father, Zechariah, there is not a single priest, scribe, Pharisee, or Sadducee mentioned.
Right away we learn that the reign of God which is to be made manifest by Jesus is completely different from the reign of Caesar. Jesus’ birth is hidden, unheralded, and unnoticed by those who held power.
Now let’s look at what we do find in Luke’s version of the nativity. For me, one of the most remarkable features of Luke’s account is the singing. In less than two chapters we encounter three different songs. One is sung by Zachariah, one by Mary, and one by the angels that visit the shepherds. But all three are songs of justice.
Zechariah’s Benedictus speaks of God coming to free God’s people from their enemies and to pour out compassion on them. Mary’s Magnificat celebrates the God who lays the proud and powerful low, lifts up the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. And the Gloria of the angels is a song about the peace that God brings to earth.
The challenge in these songs to the might of Rome would not have been missed by Luke’s readers. This is not your Sunday school’s nativity! This is a radically subversive, justice-oriented story of two boys being born who will stand against the corruption and abuse of the powers that oppress their nation.
THE INSIDE OUTSIDERS
Finally, Luke’s nativity, which continues through to Jesus’ presentation in the temple, includes three kinds of outsiders who are brought into the centre of the story. Shepherds were considered unclean because their work made it impossible for them to follow the regulations of the law. Therefore they could not worship in the temple, and they were considered unfit to be witnesses in any legal proceedings.
Simeon was an old man with a hope that would have been considered absurd by many of his time—that he would see the Messiah before he died. Anna was an old widow, a woman with possibly the lowest station in Israelite society at that time, unprotected, unsafe, and as unimportant as she could be. She had spent most of her life alone and had become a fixture at the temple. I wonder how she was viewed by those who noticed her if anyone did.
These first witnesses to Jesus’ birth would have been considered unreliable at best if Mary had been asked to prove Jesus’ identity. But Luke makes no apology for including them as he tries to give the unknown Theophilus confidence in what he has heard about Jesus. Clearly, God’s reign has little concern for status, wealth, power, or any of the other qualities that our world values so highly. It seems fairly certain that, for Luke, a follower of this Jesus who gave their allegiance to a President like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable.
LIVING THE MYTH
So what would it mean for us to live by Luke’s Christmas myth? My sense is that Luke’s message is quite simple, but it is deeply prophetic. Luke shows that God’s salvation is not really about what happens after we die, but how we live before we die. He offers a vision of a new world and invites us to live in it now, in the midst of the old one. He calls us to participate, in whatever small way we can, in uplifting the poor, including the marginalised, and undermining the power of corrupt and abusive leaders.
Though we may not feel that we can really make any difference in the world, Luke’s nativity invites us to think again. Right where we are, in practical and simple ways, we can help to make God’s reign visible in our world.
- By avoiding the temptation to honour and notice the rich and powerful over the humble and poor. A wonderful act that is filled with the spirit of Christmas is to treat all people with the same dignity and respect, regardless of who they are, or where they come from.
- By using our voice to sing, speak, and vote in support of those who are marginalised and vulnerable. We can be witnesses who stand against racism, sexism, gender-based violence, homophobia, ableism, and ageism simply by how we are seen to act and speak.
- By listening to the stories of the silenced and the ignored. When we make time to listen and learn from those whose experience of the world is very different from ours, we make the world a more peaceful and compassionate place.
This year, as most of us face a quieter and less celebratory Christmas than we are used to, let’s remember the world of justice that this season represents. As many families have little in the way of gifts to give, let’s recognise the value of giving of ourselves, our time, our friendship, and our love. And, let’s make a habit of wearing our masks, washing our hands, and keeping our distance in order to protect one another. In this way, we may just move our society one step closer to the kind of world Luke had in mind when we wrote about Jesus’ birth.
What ideas do you have for living out Luke’s Christmas vision in your life this year? Please share it with us in the comments and let’s join together in living the Christmas Myth!
NOTE: I’m taking a break for the next couple of weeks so there won’t be any new blogs until January. May you have a peaceful and loving holiday season!
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