Friday, November 26, 2010

Advent: First Week Online Conversation of "The First Christmas": How To Approach The Nativity Stories

Advent and Christmas Conversation: excerpts from The First Christmas by Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan

Each week of Advent, we will post excerpts from this book and invite your reading, reflections, and your own response here; also post links for conversation that develop the themes of each week's posting.
First Week of Advent Discussion: How To Approach the Nativity Stories...

"Because of the importance of Christmas, how we understand the stories of Jesus' birth matters...They are : sentimentalized. And, of course, there is emotional power in them. They touch the deepest of human yearnings for light in the darkness, for the fulfillment of our hopes, for a different kind of world. Moreover, for many Christians, they are associated with their earliest memories of childhood. Christmas has emotional power. But the stories of Jesus' birth are more than sentimental. The stories of the first Christmas are both personal and political. They speak of personal and political transformation. Set in their first century context, they are comprehensive and passionate visions of another way of seeing life and of living our lives. They challenge the common life, the status quo, of most times and places. Even as they are tidings of comfort and joy, they are edgy and challenging. They confront "normalcy," what we call the "normalcy of civilization"--the way most societies, most human cultures, have been and are organized.

...Our task is twofold. The first is historical: to exposit these stories and their meanings in their first-century context. The second is contemporary: to treat their meanings for Christian understanding and commitment today...We think hearing their ancient and contemporary meanings matter particularly for American Christians today. To say the obvious, America is in the powerful and perilous position of being the empire of our day. As we will see, the stories of the first Christmas are pervasively anti-Imperial. In our setting, what does it mean to affirm with the Christmas stories that Jesus is the Son of God (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is the savior of the world (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is Lord (and the emperor is not). The repetition risks growing tiresome.

"There is a political meaning and challenge in these stories, both in their ancient writings and today. Of course, these stories are not "only" political--they are also deeply personal. They speak,and speak powerfully, about our deepest yearnings and about God's promises and passion. They are religious in the way the Bible as a whole is religious: life with the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, is both personal and political. The personal and political meanings can be distinguished but not separated without betraying one or the other. And because the political meaning of these stories has commonly been overlooked, we highlight it...Doing so involves no denial of the way these stories also speak to our lives as individuals. They are about light in our darkness, the fulfillment of our deepest yearnings, and the birth of Christ within us. They are about us--our hopes and fears. And they are about a different kind of world. God's dream for us is not simply peace of mind, but peace on earth."

[Borg and Crossan then spend a chapter discussing the stories as "pageantry" in the way many people have come to think and understand them, and how both Matthew and Luke present different pageants, how pageants can be done, but how important it is to make distinctions between the two versions so meaning is gained and not lost. They also say many Christians see the stories as fact and nothing more, while others see them as fable and nothing more. But they use a third way approach, seeing them mostly as parables, and also as overtures to the rest of the respective gospels. So Matthew's nativity stories carry seeds of themes that are seen again grown in the rest of Matthew--Jesus as the new Moses and Herod as the new Pharoah foreshadowing much of the way the Hebrew stories are recast as Christian stories in that gospel--and the same is true of Luke where the emphasis on the movement of the Holy Spirit and also on women and the poor and liberation can also be seen in its nativity stories with the focus on angels and Mary and shepherds.]

"Jesus told parables about God and the advent of God, the coming of God's kingdom. His followers told parables about Jesus and his advent, the coming of the bearer of God's kingdom. In this sense, we see the birth stories as parables about Jesus. We focus on their more than literal more than factual meanings. To see these stories as parabolic or metaphorical narratives does not require denying their factuality. It simply sets that question aside. A parabolic approach means "Believe whatever you want about whether the stories are factual--now, let's talk about what these stories mean. Meaning, not factuality, is emphasized....(they write how no one argues over the facts of Jesus' parables and whether their actions really happened and their characters were really true, but instead delve into the meanings; the same should be taken with the parables about Jesus.)

"A second feature of the parables of Jesus adds to our model of interpreting the birth stories...They subverted conventional ways of seeing life and God. They undermind a "world" meaning a taken for granted way of seeing "the way things are."...And just as Jesus told subversive stories about God, his followers told subversive stories about Jesus....Who is the King of the Jews? That was Herod the Great's title, but Matthew's story tells us Herod was more like Pharoah, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him. Who is the Son of God, the Lord, the savior of the world, and the one who brings peace on earth? Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor, Caesar was all of these. No, Luke's story says, that status and those titles belong to Jesus. He--not the Emperor--is the embodiment of God's will for the earth.

For the Second Week of Advent Discussion, we will take up the chapters "The Context of the Christmas Stories" and "Genealogy as Destiny." Third Week: "An Angel Comes To Mary" and "In David's City of Bethlehem". The Fourth Week of Advent: "Light Against the Darkness" and "Jesus as the Fulfillment of Prophecy". For Christmas: "Joy to the World."


You are welcome to comment on the quotes and points above, especially to share personal journeys along the road in your life of finding deeper meaning in how you yourself have learned to approach the nativity stories, both personal and political.

1 comment:

Deep River said...

I approach the nativity stories personally, because I currently lack the historical/Biblical knowledge necessary to understand the broader political messages. I am full of awe when I dwell in the image of God choosing to come to this earth in the same way that all of us come to this earth - as a fragile baby carried by our mothers. Mary being young and unmarried only serves to highlight the fragility of life in the nativity stories. It makes me grateful for my own life, for my own mother, and for a God who values life so much that he would chose to be born amongst us. That's what speaks to me in the pageants of the nativity stories.