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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.


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.)

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

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.

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