It’s the first Sunday of the new church year! The first Sunday of Advent. We are now officially into our liturgical countdown to Christmas. Our culture has long had its commercial countdown—however many shopping days left till Christmas that started with how many? Anyone know? Started well before Thanksgiving, didn’t it? Before Halloween? I found one internet countdown dated September 15 marking 100 shopping days left until Christmas! As opposed to just our four weeks of Advent.
With every new church year, the lectionary shifts its gospel focus, this year, from the gospel of Luke to the gospel of Matthew. But this Advent season, instead of looking to Matthew, we’re going to take a Sunday to look at each of the four gospels. They are, after all, our primary sources for the Jesus story. And while we do tend to think of it as the one Jesus story instead of as four different ones—while we tend to take details from each of the four gospels and then put those details into the one narrative time line we call Jesus’ life, that’s not really fair or appropriate to our sources.
And when it comes to Advent and Christmas, it’s even more unfair or inappropriate. Because with the birth narratives, we look to only two of our four sources—we look to Matthew and Luke, and we make of those two stories, one story, and then assume it to be the story all four sources would agree on. I don’t know, you, like I, may have heard the four gospels described as four witnesses on the four corners of a street describing one incident (let’s not call it an accident!) in the middle of the intersection from their four different perspectives. Add together the perspectives and you get the most accurate account. So, with regards to Advent and Christmas texts, angels come to Elizabeth and Mary. Fear not. Fear not. Two unexpected pregnancies. Angels come to Zechariah and Joseph. Two confused men. There’s a census. Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem. There’s no room at the inn. They get the stable. Jesus is born in a manger. Swaddling clothes. Angels appear to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Fear not. Glory to God in the highest. Magi are following a star that appeared in the sky that hovers over the stable. They all arrive at the stable. The magi have gifts. Everyone leaves glorifying God. Mary ponders everything in her heart and writes it all down in her baby book. It’s a great story.
Except it’s two stories … that don’t agree. Not only do the details not match up, but in telling the tale of Jesus’ birth, Matthew has Jesus born during the reign of Herod who died in 4 BCE while Luke dates Jesus’ birth to the time of the census of Quirinius taken some ten years after Herod’s death.
Here’s the thing: “[a] growing consensus has held that … all the evangelists [were] … theologian[s] of the Christian community. [Their] purpose [was] not primarily to write history, but to announce a message” (Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1983) 17. emphasis mine). Surely, after all, no matter what street corner you happened to be standing on, if you were recording history, you wouldn’t miss a birthday by ten years! No, the purpose of the gospels is not to tell the history of Jesus, but to tell the Jesus story. And this year, throughout Advent, we’re going to look at how each of the gospels tells (or doesn’t tell) the Christmas story or the birth narrative as a part of its larger, longer Jesus story.
And a birth narrative, in Mark’s gospel, is a story deemed not worth telling. Because as we begin today with what is presumed to be the earliest of the four gospels: the gospel of Mark … begins … chapter 1 … with John the Baptist and Jesus—begins … let’s jump right in … identifying John the Baptist and Jesus (as adults, mind you) as the “beginning of the good news.” No angels announcing a birth to either unsuspecting young girls or surprised young men. No fear nots. No Elizabeth, no Zechariah. No Mary, no Joseph. No census. No Bethlehem. No no room at the inn. No stable. No manger. No swaddling clothes. No donkey. No cow. No shepherds. No heavenly hosts. No glory to God in the highest. No star in the sky. No magi. No gifts. There is no Advent. There is no Christmas. There is Jesus full grown already in the full stride of his ministry—baptized, driven into the wilderness—the rush is on.
So what do we, looking for a Christmas story to go with our Advent worship do with no Christmas story? First, we acknowledge that we may assume too much on Christmas’ behalf. Because it’s so important to us, we think, surely …. We may presume too much on Christmas’ behalf. One of our primary secondary sources, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first years of the church, like Mark, doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus at all. Like Mark, refers only to the life and the ministry of Jesus.
And it’s not like any celebration of Christmas was immediately incorporated into church life either. Ever struck you that there’s no biblical mention of it at all in the stories of the early church in Acts or any of the epistles? “Clement of Alexandria, one of the early church fathers, tells of a group of Egyptian Christians, around the year 200 CE, celebrating the nativity [but] on March 25. Tertullian who died in 220 CE does not mention Christmas as a major feast day. in the year 245 CE, Origen of Alexandria, another of the church fathers, said only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) celebrated their birthdays. In 303 CE the Christian writer, Arnobius ridiculed the the idea of celebrating the birth of the gods, which suggests that Christmas was not yet a feast at this time” (Russ Dean, “Lost in the Cantatas” a sermon preached at Park Road Baptist Church, November 29, 2009. My good friends Russ and his wife and co-pastor, Amy, explored Advent and Christmas through the four gospels last year. Our series is informed by some of the conversations I’ve had with them and by their sermons available on the Park Road Baptist Church website).
It was not until “the fourth century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25. And this date was chosen not for religious reasons but simply because it happened to mark the approximate arrival of the winter solstice …” (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) 4). There are actually still Christian traditions that celebrate Christmas on January 6 or even January 19. In any case, it’s pretty clear that the church simply took over a pagan celebration—and as much as there may have been to those early celebrations about redeeming some pagan celebration or claiming the symbolism of the annual transition from darkness back to light, there was at least as much rowdy celebration of excess—like Mardi Gras, like Carnival.
And we’re not just talking the early church here—the beginning of the tradition. No, the history of Christmas is a mixed bag even in our own relatively young country. “In New England, for the first two centuries of white settlement most people did not celebrate Christmas. In fact, the holiday was systematically suppressed by Puritans …. It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681 (the fine was five shillings). Only in the middle of the nineteenth century did Christmas gain legal recognition as an official public holiday in New England” (Nissenbaum, 3). In 1772, “a New York newspaper complained that the absence of ‘decency, temperance, and sobriety’ at Christmas was so serious a matter that it belonged in the courts.” (Nissenbaum, 53). Fascinating, isn’t it?
I mentioned there were no biblical grounds for a December 25 date for Jesus’ birth. Also mentioned an ancient source indicating some kind of celebration of the birth of Jesus, but on March 25. There is actually a Judeo-Christian tradition—let me back up … there’s an ancient Jewish tradition claiming Adam was created on March 25. Another Jewish tradition maintains that the ancient Jewish prophets died on the same day they were born. There’s a Judeo-Christian tradition that Jesus was crucified and conceived (not sure why conceived and not born) on March 25. December 25, of course, nine months later. March 25 just happens to be, within some of these traditions, also, coincidentally, I’m sure, the day of the fall of Lucifer, the day of the passing of Israel through the Red Sea, and the day Abraham took Isaac up Mount Moriah to kill him. You’re going to mark March 25 on your calendar next year, aren’t you?!
All really interesting, but there are really only two options why the earliest of our sources wouldn’t have included a birth narrative: they either didn’t know about them, or they knew about them and chose not to include them. If they didn’t know about them … well, I guess it’s theoretically possible that they may not have heard them—which frankly seems a little bit hard to believe, or, as some suggest, the birth narratives weren’t come up with until later … within this new and developing Christian tradition … perhaps to justify the greatness of who Jesus grew up to be. In ancient literature, heros were often indicated as such at birth in some kind of miracle—by some kind of sign. Maybe Jesus was retrofit with an appropriate beginning.
It’s easy to get caught up in something that doesn’t really matter. Because whether there were no birth stories circulating when Mark wrote, or whether he made the choice not to include an existing birth narrative, the clear, explicit, unambiguous lesson Mark offers us this Advent season is—you ready? it’s really quite simple—that you can tell the Jesus story without including a birth narrative, and thus, conversely, if you think about it, that you can also tell a birth narrative that never touches on the fullness of the Jesus story, and so it is that a gospel writer might conclude that a birth narrative is potentially far too dangerous a story to include in a gospel.
“Dangerous?” you might howl … you know, if we weren’t in worship. “Dangerous?” Yes, dangerous. It’s so very easy to underestimate the danger inherent to precisely the beauty and the sentimentality of such beloved stories.
Let me refer you, with deep and profound apologies, to a scene from the movie Talladega Nights. I am not recommending this movie; I have not seen it. Just one scene courtesy of youtube and the recommendation of a friend (that one scene being enough, in fact, for me to not recommend this movie to you). The movie’s about (I’ve gathered) a race car driver, Ricky Bobby, and there’s this one scene where he’s at the dinner table with his family and says grace.
“Dear tiny, infant Jesus,” Ricky Bobby prays.
“Look sweetie,” his wife interrupts. “Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off putting to pray to a baby.”
“Look,” retorts Ricky Bobby, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus, or to Teenaged Jesus, or Bearded Jesus, or to whoever you want to” (Adam McKay, director, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Columbia Pictures, 2006)).
You really think Ricky Bobby’s that uncommon? Would that he were! You don’t think there are any number of people who prefer baby Jesus to Jesus the man? Prefer the nice stories about the baby and the birth as opposed to what that baby full-grown will say and teach and do and expect? Want to pick the Jesus of the story that makes them most comfortable … pick the story of Jesus they like best instead of risking being picked by the Jesus of the stories—all the stories—particularly when it comes to Mark’s stories. Isn’t that what we do?
Mark’s gospel, after all, rushes to the cross. One significant commentary calls the whole gospel Mark’s apology for the cross. That’s what everything leads to. There we find the crux(!) of the gospel. Mark’s Jesus lives—in some sense, Mark’s Jesus is driven—from beginning to end—driven by God—by his sense of God and self—into a way of life—a way of living—that confronts and challenges the world. Mark’s Jesus lives a discipline and a commitment that sees him down the long road up to Jerusalem, into Jerusalem to a cross outside Jerusalem and to the final terrifyingly unexpected vindication of God. There’s no time for a baby—no place for a baby. There’s no need for a baby—no need for cute and sentimental—no need, at the beginning, for some divine justification of this baby born. Mark doesn’t want and Mark doesn’t include anything non-essential—anything peripheral—anything distracting. Mark’s Jesus has all he needs and is all we need.
Some of you may know it as Schubert’s Eighth Symphony. More of you might recognize it if we were to play an excerpt. Some of you will know it as Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” It’s known as the “Unfinished Symphony” because it has but two of the expected four movements of a symphony. While some will say that’s all Schubert intended, it’s nonetheless known as the “Unfinished Symphony.” I remember as a child being intrigued—struck by this piece of music—absolutely fascinated with the idea that something could be incomplete … it could be unfinished, and yet, nonetheless, be so familiar, so beloved, so popular.
Here’s Mark’s gospel message: the gospel remains complete—finished—if you don’t include the traditional Christmas stories of the birth of Jesus. But if all you tell are those wonderful stories—or if you get stuck in those marvelous (familiar, beloved, popular) tales, then the gospel will necessarily remain incomplete—unfinished. The Christmas story is not the Jesus story. It’s unnecessary to the Jesus story. It’s potentially dangerous to the Jesus story. It might lead someone to think they can pick which Jesus to believe in—to pray to. And so Mark, amazingly this Advent/Christmas time, disconcertingly, discombobulatingly, demands that our question not be why he does not include a birth narrative, but why anyone would!
So this first week of Advent, go home from worship and take with you no Christmas story—no birth story anyway, no Advent story, but do take home the gospel hope. Tell yourself this first week of Advent, that Christmas is God-with-us as God-is-that-God-is … and always has been … and always will be. Tell yourself the best gift is the one you realize has always been there—one you can trust to always be there. And tell someone, “Isn’t it interesting that the best Christmas story isn’t even a Christmas story?” And when they ask you “Why?” say, “Well, it’s like this, when my daughter was born ….” unless you have a son, then you say, “Well, it’s like this, when my son was born ….” unless you don’t have kids, then you say, “Well, as my pastor said, ‘when my daughter was born, it was an amazing day. But it was an amazing day that kept getting better and better, richer and richer, more and more wonderful. Until ….’ ”
“Until what?” they’ll ask, and you could leave it at that. Or you could go on, but if you do, if you were to go on, you would have to let your eyes get brighter. You’d have to make sure there was real enthusiasm in your voice. You’d have to be a good witness.
“Until not the day God is born in her, but the day God grows up in her, driving her to a way of being such that to look at her is to see God—living urgently and passionately—is to see an answer to prayer—is to see hope fulfilled—is to see that she is herself Christmas—Emmanuel—God-with-us, and that as hard and difficult as life will be—as challenging and terrible as life can be, there’s not anything in this world that can undo that. She is Christmas … there’s nothing that can undo that … absolutely nothing at all.’ ” That—that’s something worth waiting for, don’t you think? Something worth anticipating. Happy first Sunday of Advent from the story, absolutely finished and complete, without the story deemed not worth telling.