What Is the Christmas Story For?

by Greg Mackie

Virtually everyone in the Western world knows the traditional Christmas story. Every Christmas, we are reminded of the familiar images: the baby Jesus lying in a manger, the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph looking lovingly upon him, shepherds and animals gathered around, wise men bearing gifts, angelic choirs singing, and the star of Bethlehem shining above it all. The story of Jesus' birth is one of the most familiar and beloved cultural icons of Western civilization.

This story has been so deeply woven into our cultural psyche that many people assume it is a historically accurate account of what happened at Jesus' birth. Indeed, a recent New York Times poll reported that 91% of Christians and an amazing 47% of non-Christians believed that Jesus was literally born of a virgin. Modern Jesus scholars, however, are virtually unanimous that the traditional Christmas story is fiction, not history. This verdict comes not only from secular scholars, from whom skepticism might be expected, but even from scholars who are committed Christians. Well-known author (and Episcopal bishop) John Shelby Spong puts it succinctly: "No recognized New Testament scholar, Catholic or Protestant, would today seriously defend the historicity of these narratives."(1)

Scholars today are convinced that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (who were probably not really Matthew and Luke), wrote their birth narratives not to provide accurate historical information, but to proclaim a theological message about who Jesus was. Specifically, their purpose was to exalt Jesus–to proclaim him Christ the Lord, the only begotten Son of God.

In this article, I want to compare the original Gospel writers' purpose for writing what became our Christmas story with the reinterpretation of that story's imagery in A Course in Miracles. As we will see, the author of the Course–who, of course, claims to be Jesus himself–has a radically different view of what that story is for. While the Gospel writers wrote it to exalt Jesus, the Jesus of the Course uses it to exalt everyone. He transforms this beloved story from a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ to a celebration of the birth of Christ in all of us.

Matthew and Luke's purpose for what became our Christmas story: to exalt Jesus

Before discussing the purpose behind the traditional Christmas story–which is actually two stories, Matthew's and Luke's, cobbled together–I'd like to discuss some of the reasons modern scholars regard it as nonhistorical. To go into all their arguments would take more space than I have here, but the reasons for doubting Matthew's and Luke's birth narratives can be grouped into four broad categories.

Incompatibility with modern, scientific worldview

Some events in these stories are extremely implausible because they are at odds with what science tells us about the world. According to our current understanding of natural laws, virgins do not give birth, stars do not wander through the sky and stop above people's houses, and angelic choirs do not sing in the sky. Now, as a Course student, I take this appeal to the modern worldview with a grain of salt. If the Course is right, the world is not bound by what we call "natural laws," and our minds are so powerful that we can make literally anything happen–presumably, even a virgin birth. That being said, I do believe that some events are extremely unlikely. Jesus says in the Course that we can literally move mountains, but I've never heard of anyone actually doing this. It's possible that some of the more fantastic events in the birth narratives may have happened, but I think the odds are against it.

Significant events not reported in other historical sources

A number of significant events in these stories are not reported at all in other historical sources of the time. Of course, one wouldn't necessarily expect to find private events such as the angel Gabriel's appearance to Mary in historical records. But the more public events described by Matthew and Luke are events that would likely be recorded in other sources, if they had really happened.

Three examples of this: First, there is no record of a universal census ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus at the time of Jesus' birth. Second, there is no record of a star appearing and behaving as the star of Bethlehem does in Matthew's account (though various comets and planetary conjunctions have been posited as inspirations for the story). Third, there is no record of Herod's slaughter of the children, something that almost certainly would have been reported by the Jewish historian Josephus, who described other evil deeds of Herod in great detail.

Significant events reported in one Gospel but not the other

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are quite different from one another. True, they do have certain things in common. Among these things are the names Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; the virgin birth; the birth taking place in Bethlehem during Herod's reign; and the family settling in Nazareth.

But these commonalities pale in comparison to the differences between the two accounts. For example, Matthew's story does not include the census, the stable, the manger, the swaddling clothes, the shepherds, or the angelic choir. Luke's story does not include the visit of the wise men, the star of Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt, or Herod's slaughter of the children. While two historical accounts of the same event can certainly differ on details and emphasis, the differences between Matthew and Luke are so stark that it is difficult to believe that their narratives are historical reports.

Contradictions between the two Gospel accounts

Finally, there are some irreconcilable differences between Matthew's and Luke's stories. Perhaps the most significant are those that stem from conflicting views of where Mary and Joseph lived before Jesus was born. According to Matthew, it was Bethlehem. In his story, Mary and Joseph do not journey to Bethlehem, and the star leads the wise men to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus resides–presumably, Mary and Joseph's house. The story of Herod's slaughter of the children is in part a device to get the family to Nazareth. According to Matthew, after returning from the flight to Egypt, Joseph is told in a dream to settle his family in Nazareth.

But according to Luke, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth all along–it is even referred to as "their own city Nazareth" (Lk 2:39, KJV). The census Luke reports is a device to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, so Jesus could be born in the place that, according to prophecy, would be the birthplace of the Messiah. Because there is no need for a device to get the family to Nazareth, Luke doesn't include a flight to and return from Egypt. In his account, Jesus is simply circumcised at eight days old and presented at the Temple in accordance with Jewish custom.

In short, there is just no way to reconcile significant elements of Matthew's and Luke's stories (though many have tried). One or the other at least is historically unreliable, and most likely, based on all we've seen, both are historically unreliable. This is why most scholars would probably concur with Spong's flippant remark: "The only obvious historical fact beneath these narratives is that Jesus was born."(2)

History, however, was not what these stories were for. Rather, in the words of famed Catholic scholar Raymond Brown, they were "primarily vehicles of the evangelist's theology and Christology."(3) Their purpose was not to give an account of the Jesus of history, but to proclaim the Christ of faith: the Messiah, the divine Savior, Christ the Lord, the King of kings, the only begotten Son of God. His followers' experiences of him as a living presence after his death led them to interpret him in this way, and this interpretation became the heart of the Christian message. In short, as I mentioned earlier, the fundamental purpose of what became our Christmas story was to exalt Jesus.

Scholars have suggested a number of ways in which the various elements of the birth narratives were used to serve this purpose. The virgin birth demonstrated Jesus' divinity to gentiles, whose mythology was full of stories of gods and famous personages (like Augustus and Plato) being born in miraculous ways. The birth in Bethlehem showed Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, since they expected the Messiah to come from Bethlehem. The angelic announcement to the shepherds was Heaven's affirmation that Jesus was the "Savior, which is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11, KJV). The star of Bethlehem and the angels' glory were symbols of the light of Jesus entering the darkness of the world. The visitation of the wise men and King Herod's attempt to kill Jesus portrayed Jesus as the divine king, a king whose lordship superceded the lordship of Herod. The flight to and return from Egypt (and Herod's slaughter of the children, which echoes Pharaoh's slaughter of the male Hebrew children in Exodus) identified Jesus with Moses, the greatest hero of the Jewish tradition.

Of course, no one can know with absolute certainty what was in the minds of the evangelists as they wrote the birth narratives. The specific purposes of various elements of these narratives are much debated by scholars; this debate has filled many books. But there is widespread agreement that the general purpose of these stories was to exalt Jesus. They were intended to proclaim the person of Jesus as the focus of Christian faith, and they have continued to serve this purpose to the present day. As Spong says, "Our focus remains on the one who inspired them, who still holds a magnetic attraction for us, drawing us day by day into mystery, awe, worship, and adoration."(4)

Jesus' purpose for our Christmas story: to exalt everyone

Jesus, as he does with so many things in the Course, turns the traditional Christian view of him on its head. While traditional Christianity regards Jesus with the awe befitting a superior being, he says in the Course that this attitude toward him is profoundly mistaken:

Equals should not be in awe of one another because awe implies inequality. It is therefore an inappropriate reaction to me….There is nothing about me that you cannot attain. (T-1.II.3:5-6,10)

The affirmation that we are all equals with Jesus is a huge theme in the Course. One way Jesus expresses this theme is to take a biblical quote that was originally about him, and apply it to us. For instance, he adapts the biblical words that acclaimed him the Son of God at his baptism to say to us, "You are [God's] beloved Son in whom He is well pleased" (T-4.I.8:6). He redirects the self-exalting words attributed to him in the Gospel of John to say to us, "You are the way, the truth and the life" (T-7.III.1:9). And he plays off of the biblical confession of Peter that Jesus was "the Christ, the Son of the living God" to say to us (in the third person), "Is [Jesus] the Christ? O yes, along with you" (C-5.5:1).

It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus does the same thing with the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. He shares the evangelists' lack of concern about the historicity of those narratives–he never renders a historical verdict on them in the Course–but does not share the evangelists' purpose for them. As he does in so many of his biblical references, he uses the imagery of our traditional Christmas story not to proclaim a message about who he is, but about who all of us are, including him.

Let's look at some examples of this from the Course. The following passages demonstrate how Jesus has shifted the purpose of Christmas story imagery from exalting him to exalting all of us. Each "From…to" pairing in the points below expresses this shift. As you read these passages, I encourage you to actually apply them to yourself, even inserting your name at various points, to capture the sense of majesty and grandeur that Jesus is trying to awaken in us.

From the celebration of Jesus' physical birth to the celebration of our spiritual birth

This is the season when you would celebrate my birth into the world. Yet you know not how to do it. Let the Holy Spirit teach you, and let me celebrate your birth through Him. The only gift I can accept of you is the gift I gave to you. Release me as I choose your own release. (T-15.X.1:5-9)

The original story, of course, is all about the birth of Jesus. That's what we celebrate during the Christmas season. But in this passage, Jesus turns this completely around: for him, the Christmas season is a time in which he celebrates our birth–the birth of Christ in us. All he asks is that we do our part to bring that birth about, by giving him and all of our brothers the gift of freedom.

I see another parallel with the Christmas story here. In the original story, the wise men gave Jesus gifts. Here, we are also to give him a gift, but once again Jesus turns it completely around, for in this case, it is a gift that he has already given to us.

From the manger in a stable to the holy altar within us

My birth in you is your awakening to grandeur. Welcome me not into a manger, but into the altar to holiness, where holiness abides in perfect peace. My Kingdom is not of this world because it is in you. And you are of your Father. Let us join in honoring you, who must remain forever beyond littleness. (T-15.III.9:5-9)

In the original story, Jesus is born in a manger. Here, he is born in the altar of holiness within us. This inner birth opens our minds to the indescribable holiness and grandeur of our true Self. Again, we see a dramatic reversal: Christmas is normally a time in which we honor Jesus, but here Jesus wants to honor us. We are eminently worthy of such honor, for we are the Sons of God in which the Kingdom of Heaven abides. What is true of Jesus is also true of us.

From the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem to the newborn Christ in our holy relationships

Behold this infant, to whom you gave a resting place by your forgiveness of your brother, and see in it the Will of God. Here is the babe of Bethlehem reborn. (T-19.IV(C).10:7-8)

In the original story, the baby Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Here, the "babe" is the Christ born within a holy relationship. He is no longer an individual infant in a distant land from long ago, but is instead a presence who enters any relationship in which we forgive a brother and join with him in a truly common goal. This presence gives the relationship the goal of holiness, and immediately begins shepherding it towards its lofty goal. This presence is "the babe of Bethlehem reborn."

From the proclamation of God's glory to the proclamation of our glory

Glory to God in the highest, and to you because He has so willed it. Ask and it shall be given you, because it has already been given. Ask for light and learn that you are light. (T-8.III.1:1-3)

In the original story, "Glory to God in the highest" is the angelic choir's hymn of praise to God for the precious gift of Jesus. Here, the glory of God is still proclaimed, but with a significant addition: our glory is proclaimed as well. And just as Jesus is the light of the world, so are we; all we need do is ask God to reveal to us the light that He created us to be.

From the star of Bethlehem to the light of Heaven within us

The sign of Christmas is a star, a light in darkness. See it not outside yourself, but shining in the Heaven within, and accept it as the sign the time of Christ has come. (T-15.XI.2:1)

In the original story, the star of Bethlehem is the light that leads the wise men to the place where Jesus was born. Here, it is not an external star at all, but the light of Heaven at the heart of our being. As we accept this inner light, the Christ in us is born again.

From the angels witnessing the birth of Jesus to the angels witnessing the birth of Christ in us

Watch with me, angels, watch with me today. Let all God's holy Thoughts surround me, and be still with me while Heaven's Son is born. Let earthly sounds be quiet, and the sights to which I am accustomed disappear. Let Christ be welcomed where He is at home. And let Him hear the sounds He understands, and see but sights that show His Father's Love. Let Him no longer be a stranger here, for He is born again in me today. (W-pII.303.1:1-6)

In the original story, the angels of God witnessed to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Here, in a passage that is surely meant to evoke the peaceful nativity scene that inspired hymns like "O Holy Night" and "Silent Night," the angels of God witness to the birth of Christ in the stillness of our hearts. As with all of these passages, the evangelists' celebration of the birth of Jesus has been transformed into a celebration of the birth of Christ in us.

Jesus' reversal of Christianity's reversal

As I reflect on all we have just examined, I am struck by the tension between Jesus' view of himself and Christianity's view of him. As scholars have sifted through the Gospels in search of the historical Jesus, the Jesus that has emerged is a person who never spoke of himself in exalted terms, but instead spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven available to everyone. After his death, however, his followers did begin to exalt him, and the Jesus of history was quickly overshadowed by the Christ of faith. As we've seen, the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke were part of this overall process. As a result of this process, the focus of Christianity shifted from Jesus' teachings to Jesus himself. It became a religion about him.

If the scholars are right about the historical Jesus, then the Christian tradition's exaltation of him is a profound reversal of what he actually taught. And if the Course is indeed written by Jesus, then it represents a profound reversal of that reversal. For the message of the Course is clearly not about him, but about all of us, including him. As we've seen, one way he elevates all of us to the status Christian tradition reserves only for him is through his use of the Gospel birth narratives. Throughout the Course, he uses the very images the Christian church created to exalt him to exalt everyone–to express once again his original message of the Kingdom of Heaven that belongs to all of us, and is all of us.

As Course students, we have a precious opportunity to participate in this return to Jesus' original message. This holiday season, whenever we encounter the traditional Christmas story, let's infuse it with the purpose Jesus has given it. Let's see it as a celebration not only of the birth of Jesus, but of the birth of Christ in everyone. Let this be a season in which we celebrate our God-given equality with our beloved elder brother, Jesus. In equality our union with God and all our brothers lies, and as Jesus reminds us in the Course, "The gift of union is the only gift that I was born to give" (T-15.X.3:4).


Notes

1. John Shelby Spong, Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 44-45.

2. Ibid., p. 21.

3. Quoted in Russell Shorto, Gospel Truth: The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History, and Why It Matters (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), p. 35.

4.Born of a Woman, p. 60.

One Comment

  1. Mary Benton
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Greg,
    This article sounds familiar. Has it been posted before? In any case I think it oversimplifies what the gospels were about. They are complex documents. To be sure in A Course in Miracles Jesus does make some corrections. In regard to John Shelby Spong he tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater and the resulting brew is inadequate compared to both the Gospels and A Course in Miracles.

    In my experience many people ( including those with no “beliefs” about Christmas) instinctively know what this season is about. We open our hearts to our brothers and see the goodness in them and ourselves. For this no particular metaphysics, Christology, or theology is required. This is the “universal experience” Jesus talks about in the Course. Let it be.

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