The First Christmas – Final Reflection

It turns out, the living out of Christmas got in the way of writing a reflection on this book over the last few weeks.  BUT as it is the last day of Christmas I figure I have time for one more post.

I really loved this book.  I found my own journey through Advent enhanced by Borg and Crossan’s writing.  I listened to most of it as an audiobook, and as a person who doesn’t get to listen to sermons very often, this filled that hole I was experiencing. 

I was particularly drawn to their inclusion of time in their discussion.  The weaving together of past present and future in these stories and in how we live this story out in our lives provoked a great deal of thought for me, and was almost the theme of my Christmas Eve Sermon.

I liked hearing the story told in a way I hadn’t heard recently.  I liked the reminder of the political nature of the origins of our faith.  I really felt enabled to dig into scripture with renewed passion.

And now, if you’ll excuse me I have to go take down my Christmas tree, tomorrow is Epiphany!

Questions for Reflection

Did this book influence your experience of Christmas this year?  Did it change how you heard the stories?   How?

What was the most influential piece of this book for you? 

What action does your reading of this book call you to?

If you didn’t like this book, or found it disturbing or upsetting, what was it that caused that response?

 

(P.S. My reading of this book calls me to read The Last Week in preparation for Holy Week)

Chapters 4 and 5

Chapter 4 Genealogy as Destiny pages 81-98 and Chapter 5 An Angel Comes to Mary pages 99-127

Chapter 4

I will admit, these chapters get heavy and don’t have the same catchy approach as the first section did.  Matthew and Luke’s genealogies are not particularly riveting, which is why we mostly ignore them.  I’m glad Borg and Crossan spend some time on this because it does play a part in the story, but it wasn’t the easiest chapter to wade through.

I remember as a child, the church I attended made a Jesse Tree each Advent.  We placed a felt symbol on it day of the month of December.  We began with Adam and Eve and moved through the Hebrew Scriptures naming people in the lineage of Jesse, until we got to Jesus.  I remember the minister saying something about it telling the story of the history of our faith.  But it didn’t thrill me, and I had mostly forgotten about it until I read chapter 4.  I wonder now, if I were exploring the biblical history through that approach if it would mean something different to me as an adult.

I do think pointing to their place as a mini-overture is interesting, and it has helped me to further develop my understanding of those two gospels and their differences.

Chapter 5

I expected to be more excited reading the chapter that deals with the virginity of Mary.  It isn’t a piece of the story that has ever held relevance for me, I think the guy Jesus is more interesting and inspiring than how he came to exist, but I did expect to get caught up in this more.  Ultimately, I found the comparison to both Hebrew Scriptures (where miraculous births came to women who were older or barren) and with Greco-Roman history (where Gods and Goddesses  engaging in intercourse and impregnation with mortals was a regular part of the story, and virgin births were not unheard of) VERY helpful for understanding why this got written into the story.

In my Introductory Hebrew class at Theological College, I remember being given the Isaiah 7:14 verse to translate.  We were expected to do in-depth research into the exact meaning of the word we have interpreted as “virgin.”  It turns out, with the help of people who study ancient biblical hebrew, “young woman” is more accurate, but Matthew insists Virgin is important.

Again, like in the Geneologies, the importance stems from a comparison and overshadowing of Caesar.  Using the stories of the time to tell this story, where Jesus is more important, more worthy than Caesar.

Meaning Making

It would have been wonderful if Borg and Crossan had concluded each chapter with a section entitled “and this is what this means for people in the church now” but they didn’t.  When I heard Crossan speak this spring, he was approached by a woman who asked him questions not about his lecture, but about how the church should function.  He calmly explained that he provides the context, the matrix for the scriptures, and it is up to us, the church, to figure out how to use the information to live as Christians.

This book does not bluntly tell us what meaning we should derive from Matthew and Luke’s nativity stories, but it does tell us why they were written the way they were.  From these two chapters we hear of Jesus who is being set up to be more than Caesar. So what do we do with that?

I think there are implications on our overall faith, on our worship and church life and on how we live our lives (as faith should lead to action).

If the important take away from the genealogies and the emphasis on Mary as a virgin, is that these stories set up Jesus who is greater than Caesar, that tells us something about our own world and our own Caesars.  It means that we are welcoming again (and again) the one who is greater than the political leaders of our time as well.

These Gospels set point to the standard narrative (That of the Romans and their leadership) and offer a subversive alternate that piggybacks onto their story and then one-ups it.  This is important because we too live in a time with a problematic standard narrative.  For the church to hear that alternative narratives can be developed is good news.  But we hear from these chapters that the second narrative has to be developed from the first, and it needs to compete.

The standard narrative in our society is about capitalism and fear, and the response of the powerful.  This is not dissimilar from that in Jesus’ time.

But in Jesus, we are offered an alternative.  We are offered a story that tells us repeatedly “be not afraid,” that its is in the unexpected (the women in Matthew’s Genealogy, and Mary as a peasant mother) that we find the alternative.  And that the alternative can change the world!

It means that when we talk about welcoming the “Prince of Peace” we acknowledge that is at Title that was first Caesars, and also we are not welcoming the kind of peace we hear of in the hymns, the Silent Night kind of peace, but peace between nations because it is achieved non-violently.

Welcoming this baby who will be greater than Caesar, and who is greater than the Caesars of our time, means we are welcoming a way of living out that subversive peace, the alternate narrative.

Chapter 3

Chapter Three: The Context of the Christmas Stories 55-78

In my real church-nerd-ness, I get really excited when we talk about the context of biblical stories.  When I heard Crossan speak a few months ago it was like a series of little epiphanies set off by a fantastic storyteller.  We treat history as dry, but in the hands of a gifted storyteller, this contextual information can make the stories come alive in really helpful ways.

Full disclosure, I get pretty grumpy about how much the church has taken the Nativity stories out of their context and imbued them with meaning that does not match the original authorial intent.  I think Borg and Crossan provide us with a good taste of the history that underlies these stories.

I really appreciated the clarification on page 65 of “eschatological,” the term Christianity uses for the Kingdom of God.  So often we talk about the Kingdom as something that is coming after some great battle, or we call it  “The End of the World”.  But here, the authors point to it as being about transfiguration rather than destruction.  I like the image of “the Great Divine Cleanup of the World” rather than some epic mystical battle.  It gives us a way to participate everyday, in offering love rather than violence.

While I do really like and value the context stuff, I did find this chapter a bit heavy, and was glad to get through it.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Does Borg and Crossan’s tectonic plates illustration help your understanding of the situation these stories arose out of?

 

  • How does this information about the context of the nativity stories change how you hear the stories?

 

  • What in this heavy chapter had the greatest effect on your faith?

Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Parables as Overtures, pages 25-53

A few years ago, I remember having a conversation with some friends about the book The Da Vinci Code.   Our conversation was about whether or not it had been good for Christianity.  For some people, the idea that Jesus might have been married had been a deal-breaker.  For them, it nullified the work that he did.  For others, it humanized him in a way that made the gospels a more interesting read, and the church a more relevant place.  Ether way, people felt strongly about it.  I was reminded of this while reading Chapter 2.

We, as Borg and Crossan mention, fall into this dualism of Fact or Fable. They are talking about the Birth Narratives but it applies to so much of the conversation about the Bible.  The text is either historically factual or it is completely fictitious.  This binary post-enlightenment thinking does not leave very much space for creativity or interpretation, and I would agree, leaves us missing much of the point of the text.

Personally, I love the idea of the Birth Narratives as Parables.  I had not heard that way of exploring them before.  I like that Borg and Crossan say that “for those who have ears to hear, they are full of truth” (34).  This has helped me to settle some of the turmoil I had around these stories.  If I read them as parables, I look for the subversive messages, for the contextual essences, to create meaning, rather than the meaning being the factuality of the stories.

And, the idea of an Overture was also really enlightening for me.  I really dug into the idea that these two stories are the overtures for the Gospels they start.  I love that the themes of these Gospels are woven through the Birth stories in a way that points us to the author’s contexts and messages.  I think that will enhance my future reading of Matthew and Luke on the whole.

This chapter gave me a lot to think about, and pointed me in the direction I needed to focus my pondering about Advent and Christmas.

Question for Reflections:

What is your response to the idea of the Birth Stories as Parable and Overture?

Does this concept help or complicate your reading of these stories?

Chapter 1

Chapter One: The Stories of the First Christmas, Pages 1-24

My thoughts:

I quite enjoyed this introductory chapter.  When I read chapter 1 this past summer, I kept pestering my spouse by reading out loud, and stopping to complain about the trouble with Christmas pageants.  In fact, when I proposed this read-along, I had only read the first and second chapters.  But they caught my attention and I have not regretted reading this book!

I really liked how Borg and Crossan used the pageant model to explore and contrast the two Gospel accounts of the Nativity narrative.  I thought that walking all the way through Matthew and then through the themes and overview of Luke was a good way to start the book

I found the conclusion of the chapter, in The Richness of Two Stories very helpful for me.  I have not been comfortable with the “harmonizing” method (page 22) of dealing with the two stories,  “One common filter is ‘harmonizing’ them, either by combining them into one story or preferring one version and ignoring contradictions from the other” (22).   I agree that we are richer when we read the two gospels as separate.  I have tried to explore how to write a Christmas pageant that does not attempt to “harmonize.”  I would love to come up with a script that paralleled the two gospels and provides opportunities for us to better understand the contexts and literary devices used.

I think, reading these as two separate stories written for two separate communities is important and valuable and can enhance our faith.  Truth be told, I think I have to read more to better articulate how that helps our faith in real and practical ways.

If you aren’t reading the book along with me this Advent, read Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, and spend some time noticing the differences between the two texts. (I recommend the NRSV, at http://bible.oremus.org/)

 

Questions for Reflection:

  • Did this reminder of the biblical texts come as a surprise to you?  What was most surprising?
  • Are you already concerned that this is pushing your boundaries around the Nativity story?
  • How does this reading of the two scriptures intersect with your most important traditions and rituals?
  • So far, what action is this calling you to?
  • Please comment below, or send me an email.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reflections!

An interview to start us off

Wow!  I did not expect the enthusiastic response to this idea!  Thank you for your comments here, and at the church.  I’ve heard many of you have acquired the book and are starting to read and are waiting for more info from me …

So here is a teaser to get you going, an interview done with John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, writers of The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth.

 

And here is a tentative schedule of upcoming posts on the book itself:

Throughout Advent, I aim to update Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Each day I’ll deal with a chapter of the book, as outlined below:

Part 1: Parable, Overture and Context

  • Sunday December 3: The Stories of the First Christmas
  • Tuesday December 5: Parables as Overtures
  • Thursday December 7: The Context of the Christmas Stories

Part 2: Genealogy, Conception, and Birth

  • Sunday December 10: Genealogy as Destiny
  • Tuesday December 12: An Angel Comes to Mary
  • Thursday December 14: In David’s City of Bethlehem

Part 3: Light, Fulfillment, and Joy

  • Sunday December 17: Light Against the Darkness
  • Tuesday December 19: Jesus as the Fulfillment of Prophecy
  • Thursday December 21: Joy to the World

Appendix 3: Thursday December 28:   Jesus’s Coming-of-Age in Luke

Feel free to post any initial responses here, and I’ll post another introductory post next Tuesday, November 28th.

Join me for an Advent Read Along

This Advent, for my Spiritual Practice, I will be reading The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

I am hoping some of you will read along with me.

I will post here a few times a week with my reflections and thoughts, and hope you will comment with your thoughts and reflections as well!    Please comment below and let me know if you’ll be joining me.

More information to come next week!

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