Continuing with a recap of my post-Black Friday at Church small group session exploring the “real” Christmas story. As I noted, the Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke try to explain when (and how) God actually entered into Jesus–at the time of his conception. Paul said it was after the resurrection. Mark said it was at Jesus’ baptism. And John said there never was a time when God was not in Jesus. By explaining when God entered into Jesus, all of these writers were trying to explain how we have met God in this life of Jesus.
Unitarians and Universalists have had slightly different approaches to Jesus. For a long time, Jesus was primarily a great moral teach for Unitarians. For Universalists, Jesus was the premier example of God’s love. In both cases, there was not a lot of emphasis of Jesus being the actually Son of God. Rather, Jesus was a model of what we all might achieve as human beings. So, the question for UUs isn’t whether or not the Christmas story (as told in Matthew and Luke) is true or not (since it really doesn’t matter for our interpretations of who Jesus was). The question is, What do we do with this myth? How does it help us come to a deeper understanding of who we believe Jesus was, and what Jesus means to us today?
It’s interesting to note that it’s not unusual for exceptional figures in history to have a mythic birth narrative. (Or, if not a mythic birth narrative, then at least some heroic stories from childhood–think George Washington and the cherry tree.) One of my favorite mythic birth narrative is about the Buddha. Here’s how it goes:
About ten months after her dream of a white elephant and the revelation that she would give birth to a great leader, Queen Maya went to the king and, according to custom, requested that she return to her father’s house for the birth. The king agreed and sent soldiers ahead to clear the road and arranged a guard for the queen as she was carried in a decorated palanquin (a covered seat carried on poles held parallel to the ground on the shoulders of two or four people). The queen set off in a long procession of soldiers and retainers, headed for the capital of her father’s kingdom.
On the way the pageant passed a garden called Lumbini Park near the kingdom of Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. The queen was attracted by the beauty of the park, which was adorned with sala trees and scented flowers, birds and bees. The queen ordered the bearers to stop to rest for a while. While she rested beneath a sala trees she began her labor, giving birth to a baby boy. It was a day of a full moon in 623 B.C., a day now celebrated as Vesak, the festival of the triple event of Buddha’s birth.
According to the traditions surrounding the birth, the baby boy immediately began to walk, taking seven steps. At each point where his feet touched the ground, a lotus flower appeared. Then, at the seventh step, he stopped and pronounced:
I am chief of the world,
Eldest am I in the world,
Foremost am I in the world.
This is the last birth.
There is now no more coming to be.
Queen Maha Maya immediately returned to Kapilavatthu. When the king learned of this he was overjoyed, and as the news spread, the kingdom was full of rejoicing.
So in some ways, the Christmas story accentuates that Jesus was an exceptional figure in history, something that neither the Unitarians nor Universalists would disagree with. Exceptional, but not unique. Jesus never claimed any status for himself that he didn’t offer to his followers as well. And UUs believe that all humans are born not only with inherent worth and dignity, but with infinite potential. William Ellery Channing taught that we have a seed planted in us at birth, a divine seed given by God that if we would just cultivate it, it would grow and flourish and we could accomplish and experience extraordinary things.
The Christmas story was designed to show that God was in Jesus from conception. Our tradition tells us that if that were true, then God would be in all of us at our conception. So the Christmas story is in some ways everyone’s story.
If you want to read more about the “real” story of Christmas, check out The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan.