The story of the birth of Jesus is deeply embedded in western culture. The story takes images from the gospels of Luke and Matthew and compiles a narrative of God coming to humankind to create peace and justice. There are some details about Jesus’ early life about which we can be quite certain: he came from a large family in the small hamlet of Nazareth, worked as a day laborer, and initially was a disciple of John the Baptist. But of his birth, we know nothing.

So, where we may ask, did the stories come from? The answer is that they came from a few people who were so caught up in what Jesus had said and done, that they exalted his birth and created a story of cosmic origin and intervention. The details are familiar. An angel appeared to the virgin Mary, informing her that she had been chosen to bring into human flesh the one who would save the world. Joseph was told the pregnancy was not suspect, that the child in Mary’s womb was a manifestation of God’s power. When Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds in the field. Wise men/kings from the east followed a star brilliant beyond all others that led to the manger. We all know the story. Scholars tell us that they are products of the imagination, created by the followers of Jesus who wanted to underline his status as absolutely special. They are fabrication with a purpose, not intended to be taken literally, but definitely to be taken seriously. Fiction with a purpose, but what is the purpose?

In order to understand why the stories were written, we need to understand the context in which they were written, and that context, quite simply, is one of almost total wealth inequality, created and sustained by an elite who oppressed the poor and destitute. The message of Jesus was the opposite: loving human community wherein brothers and sisters cared for one another and shared the little they had. The gospel writers were part of that community and the images they use in their stories are a powerful repudiation of the oppression rampant in society. A poor girl is chosen.The destitute one, born amongst the animals, is the one sent by God. The angels appear to the poor in the fields and not to those who hold the wealth and power. The wisest of kings bring gifts and bow to the true king, not to Caesar, not to the oppressors.

The Christmas story is one of comfort and sweetness, if you will allow me that word. But we must not become so enamored by the Silent Night that we miss the revolutionary impact of the imagery. God appears in the poor places on earth and not in the councils of the rich and powerful. Many today do not use the word God, and we can substitute other words. The moral arc of the universe. Rightness. Universal love. The words are many but the idea is singular: the way of righteousness holds strong against the way of oppression.

Like the star of Bethlehem, the story of Christmas guides the way in the darkness. As in the time of Jesus, the forces of greed and ego are appearing with renewed strength and must be countered with the power of love. The Nativity is our assurance that love will win.

About the Author
Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Norwich, VT.

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