a homily delivered by
The Rev Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish in Portland, Maine
Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2008
...and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road....
We’re all familiar with the story, we’ve heard it many times; in fact, we just heard it again only a moment ago. But unfortunately, the story doesn’t actually end there, does it?
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what was said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” [Hosea 11:1]
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” [Jeremiah 31:15]
The First Christmas begins with the birth of an innocent child: a child of humble origins, but with magnificent future potential. But it doesn’t end there; it continues with the slaughter of dozens (and perhaps hundreds or even thousands) of innocent children, because a tyrant feels threatened by a dream. From a child’s contagious laughter to the inconsolable weeping of the mothers of murdered infants...such is the REAL story of the First Christmas, so many centuries ago.
Speaking strictly as an historian, the Truth is that we actually know very little about the details of the birth of Jesus, other than that it probably wasn’t anything like the story the way it has been handed down by Scripture. And even there, we have two very different versions, which are easily harmonized since they don’t really overlap one another at all. Some of the small contradictory details -- for example, that the shepherds find the baby sleeping in a stable, but by the time the Magi arrive (traditionally, twelve days later) the family has apparently moved into a house -- can simply be ignored or rationalized away -- why would anyone remain in a stable any longer than they had to, once a house became available? But other historical discrepancies are not so easily overlooked.
Take something so basic as the actual date of this miraculous event. Luke records that Jesus was born during the census of Quirinius, which we know from external Roman sources took place in the Year 6 of the Common Era. But Matthew’s Magi are said to have spoken with Herod the Great, who we also know from independent sources died a decade earlier, in the year 4 BCE. Knowing that the Magi have traditionally been thought of as astrologers, some scholars have attempted to clarify these discrepancies by linking the birth of Jesus to an appropriately significant astrological event, such as the conjunction between Saturn and a retrograde Jupiter in the sign of Pisces in the 7th year Before the Common Era, or approximately three years prior to Herod’s death. And this would be where most contemporary scholars would date the event as well, the assumption being that Luke was simply mistaken in his information, and therefore dated things incorrectly himself. But we will never really know for certain, which simply adds to the mystery of this already mysterious, miraculous story.
When we begin to look at the events recorded in the Gospels under the cold light of modern historical scholarship, an entirely new set of issues emerge. The question is not so much “what do we know and what will we never know;” rather, the REAL question becomes: Why were these stories written the way they were, and what “Truths” were they intended to preserve?
Personally, I’ve always been particularly interested in the story of the Magi, which has actually evolved considerably from the few simple sentences recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. All Matthew tells us is that they were indeed Magi (whatever that means) and that they came from the East, that they saw a star in the sky, and brought with them precious gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. He doesn’t tell us how many there were, although because there were three gifts it was generally assumed there were (at least) three Magi as well. He doesn’t tell us their names either, although they quickly acquired some: Melchior, Balthasar, and Gasper (who is sometimes also known as Casper or even Jasper). Their promotion from Magi to Kings also takes place sometime during the first four centuries of the Common Era. According to one tradition, the Three Kings are also brothers: Gaspar is the King of Arabia, Melchior the King of Persia, and Balthasar the King of India. According to other traditions, they represent the three continents and the three ages of Humanity. Casper, the youngest king, represents Europe, and his gift of Gold represents worldly wealth and power. Balthasar, the oldest king, is the ruler of Ethiopia and represents Africa; his gift of Frankincense (a resinous perfume that can also be burned as incense) represents the priestly function, and is symbolic of prayer and also of sacrifice. Melchior is the middle-aged king and represents Asia -- perhaps Persia, perhaps India, perhaps even China according to at least one tradition. His gift of Myrrh is the most precious gift of all: an unctuous oil worth its weight in Gold (and six times more expensive than Frankincense), it is symbolic of death and the last rites, when we are anointed with oil and wrapped in a clean shroud of cloth, in preparation for at last meeting our Creator face-to-face.
It’s from the symbolism of the three gifts that all these other details have been extrapolated and made part of the tradition. None of it is historical, strictly-speaking; it is simply the elaboration of a story over time, a story which becomes more interesting with each retelling. The shepherds bring their gifts as well, but they are simple gifts appropriate to shepherds, and are intended to emphasize the humble aspects of Jesus’s origins. Born in a stable, he is destined to rule the world in fulfillment of prophecy. But he will not rule the world in the usual way, through violence and domination, like the Romans. Rather, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Reign of God, represents a very different view of the world, a world in which:
The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together... [Sibylline Oracles, 2.319-24]
Here we have a very different vision of World Peace: a peace unlike the Pax Romana, which was the product of Roman Imperial domination, kept in place for two hundred years by military power, economic exploitation and political hegemony, along with the underlying threat of violence which accompanies these realities. Rather, it is a vision which is grounded in a different kind of ideology, and inspired by ideals of Justice and Compassion. It represents a different kind of relationship to politics and the economy, as well as a society where the swords have been beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. These are the prophecies pointed to in the Gospel narratives of the birth of Jesus. And though they may seem naive in the dangerous and sophisticated world in which we live today, they form the context of the Christmas story as we have come to know it: the final (and as yet unwritten) chapter following the Slaughter of the Innocents.
In their book The First Christmas: what the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, New Testament Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write:
One final point. It is not accurate to distinguish the imperial kingdom of Rome from the eschatological kingdom of God by claiming one is earthly the other heavenly, one is evil the other holy, or one is demonic the other sublime. That is simply name-calling. Both come to us with divine credentials for the good of humanity. They are two alternative transcendental visions. Empire promises peace through violent force. Eschaton promises peace through nonviolent justice. Each requires programs and processes, strategies and tactics, wisdom and patience. If you consider that peace through victory has been a highly successful vision across recorded history, why would you abandon it now? But whether you think it has been successful or not, you should at least know there has always been present an alternative options -- peace through justice.
“That clash of visionary programs for our earth,” Borg and Crossan continue, “is the content and matrix for those Christmas stories, and they proclaim God’s peace through justice over against Rome’s peace through victory...” But from where we sit today, two-thousand-some years after these events probably never took place, the challenges which confront us remain remarkably unchanged. Having now seen the star, having heard the angels sing on high, to which of these competing visions will we now bring our treasured gifts, be they simple (like those of the peasant shepherds), or Royal, like the gifts of the Magi?...