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Christmas Redux, or a Rebirth of Hope?


“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. 
Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.” – Maria Popova


To read and/or print a pdf version of the commentary click here.

In these dark and dreary days each year, our world turns to celebrate another Christmas holiday. Some may do so out of the sheer need to escape, if only for a fleeting while; grasping, once again, at a thin belief and vain hope in some divine intervention into our human story; with the birth of a supernatural savior king.  Deeply powerful rituals and traditions are dragged out of the attic and observed; going through the motions for yet another year. Sticking the baby Jesus figure in a crèche one more time gives a whole different meaning to the phrase, “born again.”

Others, however, like myself, may repeat these rituals to simply reaffirm one’s belief in the rebirth of a deep, abiding hope. Because, at the heart of the biblical birth narratives lies this fundamental and essential message: Against all odds, and despite all the principalities and powers of the earthly realms and reigns that we seem to continue to construct, idolize or dismantle, a child is born and given a name: Jesus, “savior.” Would that we might be saved from our own naiveté, cynicism or despair.

This includes the excesses of fulfilling Christmas wishes with the frenzied holiday gift giving; as well as the shroud of sentimentality in which they are so often cloaked. Might we instead explore how we might unwrap and embrace the greatest gift, once and always offered ever since that mythic tale of a Bethlehem star outshone all others in a steel blue winter night sky?

The Biblical Birth Narratives as Myth & Metaphor

Let’s remember that only two of the four canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke)  have a birth story about Jesus of Nazareth. The particular and differing details of the two birth narratives are pure fiction. The odds of Jesus having been born on Dec. 25th are slim at one in three hundred sixty five. While the birth stories are fictional accounts of a human figure (who was obviously born somewhere, somehow), they are nonetheless imagined in order to convey a message claimed to hold within it some authentic truths.

These are mythic tales that were also subsequently created, after the fact; the fact being the gospel writer’s early Christian community’s need to assign and elevate one particular historical figure’s status among all the other competing demi-gods. The two stories also differ in time, place and circumstances; which is not surprising when you consider they were spun for somewhat different theological reasons. To elaborate:

Matthew is obsessed with Jesus’ legitimacy, stemming from Davidic lineage as fulfillment of the long-awaited Jewish messiah. Hence the long genealogy; which ultimately and completely breaks down, of course, when it comes to Jesus’ mother being a virgin. And Joseph adopts an otherwise illegitimate child.

But Matthew’s gospel also emphasizes the threat to earthly sovereignty that comes with Jesus’ birth. Wise men, who are foreigners travel afar to pay homage to the newborn son of Jewish peasants; offering royal gifts. Herod’s treachery and murderous scheming is the result.

Luke focuses on the meek (Mary’s “Magnificat”) and the lowliest of the low (shepherds, not wise men). But the underlying, inescapable message is the same; where both religious and political decrees were indistinguishable in the ancient world, where rulers were deemed to be either descended from, or designated by, the gods.

The underlying gospel message in both narratives is that the earthly powers and principalities will not be able to prevail against something that is forever borne anew: Hope. Hope that there is something else, something more than the human desire to hold dominion over something that is not ours to grasp or vanquish.

One biblical scholar has described the two birth stories as being akin to the overture of an opera. They introduce all the themes that are going to be included in the rest of the gospel.  And, at the heart of the “good news” message that will subsequently be enumerated in all the teaching parables and manner of life exemplified by the Galilean sage is hope.

All I want for Christmas:
A Holiday Hope vs. a Christmas Wish

An amusing exercise during the holiday shopping frenzy is to check out the record-breaking tallies from Black Friday and Cyber-Monday; as well as the TV ads for the best gift-giving ideas. A example this year is where he’s bought not one, but two brand new pick-up trucks; a shiny black one for him, and a red one for her. But she wants the black one. So, in the spirit of the season, he settles for the red one. After all, the holidays are all about the generosity of sharing our excesses, aren’t they?

More than once recently, my loving spouse has asked what I wished for this Christmas. While I haven’t made a list and there’s little I want, all I’d really like this year is to turn on the news and see the current occupant of the White House being escorted out the front door in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit.  Then that oft-sung hope-filled Song of Mary might come true.

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty
.  (Lk 1:52-53)

Unfortunately, as you probably already know, not all Christmas wishes come true.

But here’s the thing: Wishing for something is different than living with hope. Hope is first and foremost a state of being, before it becomes a matter of action. And, it is not just a transitory moment of time, wanting this or that.  Hope is a bedrock kind of perspective and promise that requires what may be the hardest gift of all to accept: Faith, or trust. That, and a little bit of love.

Observing and celebrating Christmas yet one more time is about somehow trusting that the ways of this weary world in which we find ourselves is not the way it must always be.

That is when hope becomes more than a state of being, when it becomes enfleshed with action. It is not a matter of simply hoping in vain in some illusory naiveté about baby Jesus’ birth; but rather discerning what could be hope incarnate, with the actions we might undertake with the critical discernment of what the Christmas message is really all about.
© 2019 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved. This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read a former commentary by John Bennison from the perspective of a post-theist’s observance of the Holy Nativity click here.

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