OpinionChristmas: beyond the fantastical

One of the greatest memories we carry is of how when we were young the world was infused with magic, especially at Christmas, our awaking on Christmas Day surrounded by the gifts Santa Claus had mysteriously placed there.

As we grew magic died yet so drawn are we to it we wish we were able to suspend our critical thinking, but of course we can’t.

I believe the same is true when we come to the magic of the Christmas stories. Some of the stories and symbols at the very heart of that story are not even in the biblical tradition. There is nothing for instance to tell us that Jesus was born in a stable, Matthew telling us the birthplace was a house.

The date of course is a direct co-option of the Roman Saturnalia festival, shepherds hardly likely to be in the fields with sheep in the dead of winter.

The earliest writings in the New Testament, Paul and Mark’s gospel, tell us nothing of the birth of Jesus, while the earliest accounts of Christmas in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are almost entirely different, both quite incredible, making little sense to the modern mind.

We can hardly more believe in stars travelling at walking pace relative to the speed of the earth, in virgin births and angelic choruses, than we can in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

We suspect that the birthplace of Jesus was moved from its real location in Nazareth to Bethlehem by entirely different means so to fulfil the prophetic demand that the Messiah must be born in that auspicious town.

Luke has an otherwise unknown census called to get the family, resident in Nazareth, to Bethlehem in which place they are secure, while Matthew has the family already resident in Bethlehem, from which they, being in danger, must flee.

While clearly not factual, the stories tell us many things.

In Jesus they claim, light has shone into the darkness, hence the star in Matthew and the glory of the angel’s chorus in Luke.

Likewise, his birth must be special being of a virgin, expected in the ancient world where divine-human liaisons were common leading to births of ‘the great.’

This virgin birth, however, is different in that the one through whom God procreates is a girl from the lowest of classes. This special one will announce a reign standing at such odds to the kingdoms of this world, that Herod, representing those kingdoms must necessarily oppose him.

The writers by composing these incredible stories are affirming something they held to be deeply true; in Jesus God has come to us in a way of total identification, specifically with the poor and marginalised, those, like Jesus, forced on to the roads as refugees.

The church was slow to celebrate Christmas not doing so until the 4th century, but the season does catch a profound truth, if we can get beyond the unbelievable stories and sentimentality.

In a season of heightened celebration and even frivolity, of visiting friends and relatives, there are many who feel their suffering and loneliness intensely.

Christmas affirms God’s being with us in total identification and calls us to be likewise present to each other.

Let that presence, especially with those who are most vulnerable and often despised in our culture, be that which motivates us this Christmas for that is the deep truth to which the incredible stories point.

John Queripel is a Newcastle author and a Uniting Church minister. His book, ‘Christmas: Myth, Magic and Legend’, will be released soon.