But we cannot escape the secular world around us and it is necessary for us to engage with the world, and Christmas is as good a time as any for us to do that, not least because the world is aware during this season that there is a Christian narrative of Christmas which, at least in part, they buy into. The Christmas story is owned by the world as well as the church. But are the stories the same?
It’s tempting to say that the origins of Christmas lie in its Christian roots but it’s more complex than that. It is widely known and accepted that the church, in fixing the date of the Christian festival of Jesus’s birth, appropriated already existing pagan festivals, even adopting some of the traditions into the practices it established. Its origins lie in ancient mid-winter celebrations and things like yule logs, mistletoe, holly all derive from ancient winter solstice festivities. The church took these and gave them Christian meaning closely related to their original significance. An example of this is the carol The Holly and the Ivy in which the holly, which has ancient significance in pagan belief, is given symbolic significance in the Christian faith as representing the blood of Christ, the crown of thorns, the purity of Mary and so on.
But just as it is impossible totally to disregard the ancient origins of our Christian observances so too is it impossible to forget the Christian narrative which has so shaped our modern observance of Christmas. Although, we must also acknowledge the ways in which the festival is being reshaped in our modern secular society. For Christmas has many guises - the ancient pre-Christian celebrations, the Christian festival, the modern winter break of gift giving and conspicuous consumption - and probably others too.
I’m sure that most of us have a fairly ambivalent attitude to Christmas. You can see this in the things that people say about it. Many say that they don’t much like Christmas for themselves - it’s too much work, or it’s too commercialized, or the telly’s rubbish - but they’ll also say how wonderful it is for the children, or how good it is to catch up with family and friends in the party season. And, from a Christian perspective, there are many who despair of the secular, commercial, material Christmas but love the church services, the carols and the gospel stories of Jesus’s birth. Such ambivalence makes it difficult for some Christians to find Christmas the uplifting and inspiring festival we feel it should be.
Somewhere in all this we need, as Christians, to be able to find a way of being positive about Christmas while not being indifferent to the secular celebrations around us - which have both good and bad points. This process, I suspect, involves on the one hand finding the positives in the secular, while identifying aspects of our Christian traditions which might get in the way of our hearing clearly the message of Christmas. And if Christians hear the Christmas message clearly it is more likely that others will be able to hear it too.
The positives of the secular Christmas include such things as the goodwill which is expressed in the giving to charities, the sharing of Christmas cards and presents as tokens of love, respect and mutual regard, the widely expressed dissatisfaction with consumerism, greed and exploitation and the desire to foster peace which has been associated with the festive season. It is easy to overlook the positive effect of these things, or to dismiss them as mere shadows of the Christian beliefs about Christmas, but to do so would be an error. These are genuine aspirations and actions on the part of the secular society at large; in society’s mind they are not especially associated with the gospel, or with what Christians think about Christmas, but they are genuinely held values. And these are values that all of us can share - Christians and non-Christians alike.
But we, as Christians are beset by misconceptions about what Christmas is all about. The greatest of these is our tendency to sentimentalize Christmas and, especially the Christmas story. The first thing we do is to blend the birth narratives which can be found in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels to make a single story, and then we add to it - an ox, an ass, a stable; perhaps even the inn. But these are distinct stories from different Christian traditions, each having their own emphasis in helping us to understand the significance of the birth of Jesus. Although, at this point, it’s worth noticing that neither Mark nor John have any interest at all in that birth. When we combine the stories of Matthew and Luke we tend to lose the unique insight which the evangelists give us into the nature of the Incarnation. There may be good reasons for us to use the traditional Christmas story to give us a place where we can meet the secular Christmas. But we also need to be clear about what Christmas means and what the Christmas stories tell us about Jesus and how God in Christ meets our world.
The first thing that we need to understand is that there are two entirely separate accounts of Jesus’s birth, each with their own message for us. The messages are important and valuable. The traditional Christmas story loses these messages and overlays them with a layer of sentimentality and dismisses the shock and scandal of the story.
Matthew, who records only the genealogy of Jesus through the line of Joseph, not Mary, the annunciation to Joseph in response to which Joseph adopts Jesus. Matthew records the fact of the virgin birth but gives no details as to where, it takes place beyond stating that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He then tells the story of the visit of the Magi. He recounts the story of the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the Innocents, and then the return to Nazareth. The only elements of this story that appear in Luke’s account are the names of Jesus’s parents, the fact of the birth taking place in Bethlehem and the account of a virgin birth (although even here Luke only mentions the virginity of Mary at the annunciation, whereas Matthew mentions it at the birth itself).
Luke’s story is more detailed and contains much more of what we think of as the traditional Christmas story (although not as much as we like to imagine). In fact the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel contains more than we usually think of as being part of the Christmas story, starting as it does with the foretelling of the births of John the Baptist. The birth of John is clearly an important element for Luke. He is the only evangelist who tells us of a kinship between Jesus and John. The destinies of John and Jesus are inextricably combined in Luke’s gospel, giving John a greater significance than he has even in the other gospels. For Luke there is not one birth narrative but two.
So John’s birth is foretold and then we read of the annunciation to Mary. Mary visits Elizabeth who, miraculously in her old age is carrying her son, John the Baptist. Here Mary sings the song we know as the Magnificat which says much about what Luke believed God was achieving through his choice of Mary as the mother of Jesus and through Jesus himself. John is born and circumcised and in another song (the Benedictus) John’s father Zechariah maps out John’s life as the forerunner to the Messiah, for Luke the last of the great prophets. John grows up and lives in the desert preparing for his ministry.
Now Luke returns to the birth of Jesus. We hear of the census which requires Joseph to take Mary, his betrothed to Bethlehem. There Mary gives birth, traditionally in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn - although the Greek mentions no stable and says that Jesus was laid in manger because there was no room in the inn (Greek kataluma which could equally well mean living room (the usual word for inn is pandocheion); in a poor home the animals may well have shared the living space with the family). The birth of Jesus is miraculously announced by angels to shepherds who come down into Bethlehem to see what has happened.
That is all there is in Luke of our traditional Christmas story but Luke continues with stories of Jesus’s infancy (the circumcision of Jesus), the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, and a story of his childhood when the family visit Jerusalem and the boy Jesus disputes with the doctors of the Law.
So what are the insights of Matthew and Luke which we lose when we blend the stories? In Matthew the first thing we notice is that the whole story is focused on Joseph. Mary is mentioned only as the betrothed of Joseph and, of course, as the mother of Jesus, but she has no dramatic role in the story at all. It is Joseph who receives the visit of the angel. Joseph is told that the child that Mary is carrying has been conceived by the Holy Spirit and is the child mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy (Is 7.14). Joseph should not be afraid to take her as his wife. Presumably, Matthew believed that the family lived in Bethlehem for he mentions that as the place of his birth but mentions no journey from Nazareth for the census. Matthew records the visit of the Magi, astronomers or wise men from the east. In this account we hear that the significance of Bethlehem as Jesus’s birthplace is because it fulfils another prophecy, this time from Micah (Mi 5.1). The gifts of the Magi - gold, frankincense and myrrh - certainly represent the wealth of Arabia and the traditional significance as showing Jesus’s divinity, kingship and passion have a long history, dating back to the Church Fathers of the third or fourth centuries, but do not appear in Matthew’s narrative. The flight to Egypt is undertaken in response to another appearance of an angel and again we are told that this too fulfils a prophecy (Ho 11.1). Herod’s fury which leads to the slaughter of the Innocents is another fulfilment of the words of a prophet (Jer 31.15), as is the return of Joseph and his family to Nazareth (not clear but possibly a reference to Jud 13.5, 7).
Clearly Matthew is going to great lengths to show that Jesus’s birth and the associated events fulfil Old Testament prophecy. In this way Matthew establishes Jesus’s credentials at the very beginning of his gospel. For Matthew it is not the miraculous nature of Jesus’s birth that is important but the fact that Israel has longed for his coming and that now he is born history has reached its highest point - Jesus is the culmination of God’s dealing with his people. For Matthew this is both wonderful and fearful news. Those who welcome and accept Jesus are indeed blessed, but those who reject or disregard him will find that rejection and abandonment awaits. It is an uncomfortable message - but a challenge too. Matthew wants us to make a response to what God is doing in Jesus.
For Luke the focus is entirely different. His key figure is not Joseph but Mary. Joseph hardly figures at all. But alongside Mary we also see John, and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Each of these characters in the story have a similar role to play. Each of them shows how God can use the most unlikely people to achieve his goals. Mary, a young girl with no particular credentials is chosen, very deliberately to be the mother of Jesus, Zechariah and Elizabeth, although godly and righteous, have been denied a child. But in their old age, against all the odds, Elizabeth conceives. The child is a gift from God - but a gift that comes with strings. He will be a great prophet in mould of Elijah, the greatest prophet. But it is important too in Luke’s narrative that both births are the result of miraculous conceptions - Mary because she is a virgin, Elizabeth because of her age. And there are other miraculous events - Zechariah’s loss of the power of speech and his later restoration; the baby, John, leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting; the appearance of the angel to the shepherds. And the shepherds too are unlikely recipients of the news of a Saviour’s birth. No-one in Palestinian society at the time would have been thought more unlikely to be granted a vision of angels with news such as this. Here, in Luke’s gospel, we see spelled out over and again God’s disposition to the poor and outcast - and just as in Matthew’s gospel the birth narrative sets the scene for the whole gospel so too does it here in Luke.
The Christmas story is a wonderful one - but it doesn’t really contain a stable, an ox or an ass. Perhaps there is no inn. But what it does tell us is more remarkable in many ways. The accounts of Matthew and Luke tell us that God, in sending Jesus, continues the interaction with humanity that we see in the Old Testament. God is still acting to bring hope and salvation to his people. Luke reminds us that God is predisposed to the poor and powerless and Matthew demands that we make a response to God. He would not wish us to be indifferent to the God who sends his Son into the world to take our human form.
But, in the end, it is probably not the stories of Christmas that will bring people to Christ; rather, it will be how we allow the world to see how those stories have affected us and how we have responded to them.