One of the reasons last week’s Black Friday at Church event was such a powerful experience was the opportunity for individuals to gather in small groups after the worship service for discussion, information, and meditation. The groups were led by members of Unity Church-Unitarian, including myself. The most popular was “Wealth of Things vs. Wealth of Spirit,” led by Bill Doherty and Elizabeth Shippee, a valued elder of the church. I led a group called “The ‘Real’ Christmas Story Explored.” Other groups included “A Christmas Promise,” led by Katy Taylor, where individuals were encouraged to “make a promise that will create more meaning in the Advent and Christmas season for yourself, your church, or your community.” Becca Pournoor, former DRE at Unity, led a session called “The Season in Poetry and Prose,” and a group of adults and youth helped children ages four to ten with some hands-on activities that explored the themes of Advent and Christmas. All in all, was a very multigenerational event. (You can read more about the event at my colleague Nancy Heege’s blog, Nancy’s Views of the Landscape.)
At any rate, I thought I’d do a little rundown of what we covered in my small group. There were about 20 people who showed up to explore the “real” Christmas story. Since the title and the description were assigned to me by the Black Friday Planning Group, I decided to keep it fairly simple by giving my perspective on what I thought the Christmas story accomplishes in the Bible. I said there were basically two things the story does. One, it does some damage control around the issue of Jesus’ paternity. If we had a copy of his birth certificate, it would probably say “father unknown.” This is a pretty incontrovertable fact, given evidence in Mark 6:3 that Jesus was considered “illegitimate” in his hometown: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” According to Austin Cline (and many other sources) “To call Jesus the ‘son of Mary’ in this fashion is tantamount to saying ‘this guy has no real father, he’s a bastard.'” And since this appears in the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels to be composed (c. 70 CE), it represents an inconvenient truth that other Gospel writers had to address. Indeed, Luke and Matthew change the wording of this text to “son of Joseph.” And they both felt compelled to add an impressive series of “begats” to their Christmas narratives to drive the point home.
Which leads me to the second thing the Christmas story does in the Bible. According to Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book The Sins of Scripture, both Matthew and Luke use their Christmas narratives to answer the question, “How did God get into Jesus?” The original point of entry was at the resurrection as far as Paul was concerned. “God simply declared Jesus to be the Son of God at the time of the resurrection by the action of the spirit, said Paul when he wrote his epistle to the Romans [c. 60 CE].” Spong goes on to say that “Mark explains it with his baptism story.” He “tells the story of the heavens opening, the Spirit descending on Jesus, and the heavenly voice off-stage saying: ‘Thou are my beloved son!'” (And remember, Mark was written somewhere around 70 CE.)
“Matthew changed the timing,” says Spong. “The declaration that Jesus was the Son of God came from and unnamed angel in a dream to Joseph. It was still mediated by the action of the Holy Spirit, but it now took place at the moment of conception.” The Gospel of Matthew, by the way, was composed c. 80 CE. Spong continues: “Luke repeats the miraculous birth story, but he makes it more specific. The angel is Gabriel and communicates to Mary in real time. The child she will bear will be called ‘The Son of God.'” That gets written c. 85 CE. (John continues to move the event horizon back in time–all the way to the beginning: “When John wrote the Fourth Gospel [c. 100 CE], he decided that there was never a time when God was not in Christ.”)
So. What does this have to with how Unitiarian Universalists approach the Christmas story? I’ll save that for another post.