What really happened that night long ago and far away?
Did it happen with camels and donkeys and kings and shepherds and angels and stars in the sky? That certainly is the general understanding 2000 years later. But what really happened?
Or, maybe we should ask: Where can we go to find out?
One thing for sure, we can't go to any extra-biblical historical documents to find out. No Ancient historians – Josephus, Pliny, etc. – mention the birth of Jesus. That's sort of odd, isn't it if it really happened the way the Bible says. You'd think some historian might have picked up on it. But there is absolutely nothing from historical sources other than scripture itself about the birth of Jesus. In fact, there is very little extra-biblical info about Jesus whatsoever: we know there was a man named Jesus around the time of King Herod's rule who developed a following (just like a whole lot of other prophets/seers of his day); we know Jesus irritated the authorities and was crucified and died. But unlike all the other prophet/seers of his day, all of whom disappeared off the radar screen after they died, Jesus seemed to become more effective after his death than during his life.
But what do we know about his birth? All we know we get from the Gospels. But not from Mark. There is no mention of his birth in Mark. Since Mark is recognized by virtually all scholars as the earliest recording of the life of Jesus, written closest in time to Jesus' actual life, you'd think it might have gotten a mention if Mark had ever heard of it. It doesn't make sense. And you can't go to the Gospel of John, either – the Gospel of John, the latest gospel written, recorded after the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke appeared, doesn't mention it, either. That doesn't make a lot of sense, either, does it?
On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense that it isn't mentioned when we remember this: When someone is born and goes on to become real famous – George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Jesus Christ (?) -- we don't know to be there to cover the event of the birth until long after the fact. In hindsight, we might wish we had been there; we might seek out witnesses who might have been there; or, based upon how important this person had gone on to become during his lifetime, we might even construct a story intended to capture his greatness. We might construct a story that is never intended to be an historically accurate documentary – it is intended to be something far more important than that – it is intended to capture the essence of how his life has meaning in ours. We might create a baby with all the world flocking to witness the miracle of Creation in the form of a new born babe, therein capturing, in symbolic terms that we all understand, a future laced with Faith, Hope, Trust, and Love. We might even tuck that baby away – in in a manger.
Some of us might tell the story one way, with kings and stars in the sky, and gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Like Matthew told it. Others might tell it with angels, and shepherds, donkeys, and camels. Like Luke told it. And then, over time, something strange might happen. The more the story gets told, the more people might begin to believe it as historical fact. And even though more than one story might wind up being spread, and even though those stories might wind up getting intermingled, the more they are told, the more people begin to believe it as historical fact. And then, some people (we'll call them collectively "The Church") start putting all their stock in the historical accuracy of the birth story and all the other stories; they assume a hunker down, defensive position, and since the best defense is a strong offense, they go on the offensive. Anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is labeled a heretic.
In the process of all this, the greater truth of what really happened is lost. Buried in the annals of dull, boring historicity. So what really happened that night?
Who knows? Maybe it would help to re-phrase the question. Instead of "what happened that night?" how about: "Whatever happened that night, what is its meaning to us this night, 2000 years later?"
The answer depends, in large part, on the Jesus you believe in. There are so many Jesuses, aren't there? But when it comes down to the essence of Jesus it really comes down to what we might call the Incarnational Jesus or the Messianic Jesus. The Incarnational Jesus is the historically "orthodox" or predominant Christian view. Jesus literally becomes God-in-the-flesh, and instead of Joseph as the father and the mother Mary as a "young woman," God becomes The Father and Mary becomes a "virgin."
The Incarnational Jesus is the "Christ Out There," separate and distinct from us, who "comes down" from Heaven like a super-savior and saves the day! A Christ out there who is to be worshipped, honored, praised, revered. This is the "popular" Jesus – the "orthodox" view – for lots of reasons, but I believe primarily because it offers the least burdensome means of guaranteeing salvation. Least burdensome to humankind, that is. The primary saving work of God is complete with the incarnation. Salvation is complete – all that remains is to fill in the blanks -- with the birth (and subsequent death, resurrection) of the Incarnate God.
In which case, the meaning of that night long ago and far away – regardless of what did or did not happen historically – is to let us off the hook, to absolve us of any and all responsibility. God and Jesus do all the work, and we sit by as mere spectators. Whatever happens in this world, just so long as we "believe," Salvation in the "next world" is ours. The meaning of this night is reduced to a night of celebrating the birth of Jesus, our Savior. Christmas becomes an annual event for giving thanks.
Thank you, Jesus.
The coming of the Messianic "redeemer," on the other hand, does not mark the completion of the Salvation – Keys to the Kingdom in the Then & Later -- but rather Jesus' birth marks the beginning of a new age. Instead of coming to offer Keys to the Kingdom in the Then and Later, Jesus comes to challenge us to get to work at building the Kingdom in the Here & Now. A Kingdom to be built by all of us together the old-fashioned way. Thru sweat equity. Sweat meaning hard work. "Equity" meaning just that, "equity" -- fairness and justice for all. The message of the Messianic Jesus was not and is not to let us off the hook, not a free pass to the "next world." Rather, it is a message of "roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work" in this world. There is no escape into another world; there is to be a transformation of this world by and through the Messiah (the Redeemer).
But before we know it, Jesus dies. And life goes on. The world is far from transformed. In fact, it had only just become. But, as it turns out, Jesus becomes far more effective in death than in life. He tells us why, too, in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, "The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
Jesus, the smallest, lowliness seed of all the earth, begins to grow during his lifetime, it takes his death for the mustard seed to flourish. With his death, the mustard seed, in the form of the Church, is sown. The Messianic Redeemer Jesus, the spirit of God within each of us, the Jesus "in here" erupts from within, and, together, The Church – the hands and feet, the arms and legs of Jesus – expands from without. But the branches head off in so many different directions – Incarnational Branches, Messianic Branches, Fundamentalist Branches, Liberation Branches, Elitist Branches, Inclusive Branches, all sorts of branches. The work goes on. The transformation continues. But it is hard work. Painstaking work as each of us is called to bear our own Cross. Two steps forward, one step back; one step forward, two steps back.
So what really happened that night? More importantly, what is happening this Christmas night? Is it simply time for us to punch in, get credit for our annual pilgrimage to pay homage to our Incarnational Savior who did all the work for us and left us with nothing to do but sing Christmas Carols, drink egg nog, and open presents under the tree tomorrow morning?
Thank you, Jesus. Good job.
Or is it something else?
Instead of a celebration looking to the past, to the past saving acts of Jesus the Christ, maybe Christmas is more future-oriented. And maybe, instead of a celebration of a past birth of someone else, Christmas is more of a celebration of our own birth, or re-brith. Yes, we look backward to the birth of Jesus with joy and thanksgiving, but No, we don't sit back and rest of Jesus' laurels. As future-oriented Christians of Hope, we are called on this Christmas Eve, not so much to an Incarnational Theology celebrating the downward movement of God "from the heavens" to "save us:" Rather, Christmas calls us to a Messianic Theology, outward movement of God from within each of us.
So what really happened that night? Does it "really" matter? Doesn't it matter far more what is happening tonight, and tomorrow, and the day-after-tomorrow, and the day after that, and that, and that, etc, etc, etc.? Isn't what really matters what happens when all the world – shepherds and donkeys, camels and kings, angels and stars in the sky – come together seeking Peace, Justice, Faith, Trust, Hope, and Hope.
Happy birthday, Jesus.
But more importantly, happy birthday, everybody. Jesus is born within.