Two Christmases in one

One of the gifts of our time is that we are continuously seeking new facts and information about our world, and we also are re-learning how to embrace the magic of story.

When our societal pendulum took a swing in the “just-the-facts-ma’am” direction, people discovered some satisfaction in the knowledge they found there, but they still felt empty somehow.

We want more than the cold, dry facts. We want the fun, too. Christmas is a lovely example. One of the gifts of our time is that we can delve into the facts of the Christmas story without fearing that we’ll lose the Christmas magic.

We can have both.

So, let’s review the basic story as we hear it told most often:

Mary, unmarried at the time, learns she’s expecting a baby. Joseph is wary at first but stands by her. There is a census. Mary and Joseph travel by donkey to Bethlehem to be counted. There is no room at the inn so Jesus is born in a stable, laid in a manger beside the cows and donkeys. Shepherds hear about this and visit. The wise men come to the stable and bring gifts. The heavenly host sings. 

Sound right? That’s the way we hear it, but it’s not the way it is in the Bible.

There isn’t one Christmas story. There are two Christmas stories—Matthew and Luke—that we have knitted together over time, and the two stories have very little in common. They are so different, in fact, that if one is believed to be factually true, then the other would be proven not to be. (To read more about this, try The First Christmas by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan.) Here’s how it looks if we take the basic elements and divide them, with only common elements in the middle:

Matthew has wise men, but Luke doesn’t. Luke has shepherds, but Matthew doesn’t. Did they find Jesus in a house or a stable? Was there a census? Did they flee to Egypt?

We do know that Matthew was a Jewish man writing for a Jewish audience, letting them know that Jesus was of the line of David (Joseph) and that he fit all the prophecies about the Messiah. And we know that Luke was a gentile, and he wanted people to know that Jesus was an inspirational leader for all people, even the lowly shepherds. We do know that these two men wrote because they were deeply moved. They wanted to pay tribute to one of history’s most powerful proponents of basic human rights.

One of the gifts of our time is that we can look at two stories that have melded together over time and say, as Native American storytellers do:

“I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”

We’re not sure about the facts of these stories, but the truth of these stories is that, once there was a man. That man inspired others because he taught, and lived, the ideal that compassion is more important than anything else, and he fought tirelessly for basic human rights.

Those are the magical ideals we strive for at Christmas, because once there was a man.

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