Jesus son of Bethlehem?
You may have heard that his birthday was actually in the summer. The reason people think this is more likely has to do with the passage in the second chapter of Luke, which says there was to be a census in the Empire, and everyone was to travel to their hometown to be registered. You couldn’t possibly ask people to move around the Empire in the height of winter, ergo Jesus must have been born in the summer. The trouble with that is, there is no record of there ever being an Empire-wide census. Not only is there no record, it would be a logistical nightmare. More than a nightmare, it would be impossible. It’s far more logical to assume that Luke is not recording an historical event, but rather using the Empire census idea as a literary device to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, as opposed to Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph were living. The reason it was important to relocate Jesus’ birth to Bethlehem is because of a passage in the book of Micah in the Old Testament, which reads, ‘But as for you, Bethlehem, though you are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel’. In order to increase Jesus’ Messianic legitimacy, Luke relocated his birth to Bethlehem.
The passage says… ‘shall come forth to rule in Israel’. Remember, the Jewish people were waiting for a Messiah who would be a political ruler, a king of Israel, who would fight back the Romans, and establish a new Kingdom of Israel on earth. The twist in Christianity, of Jesus’ ministry, is to understand the Kingdom of Israel not as a physical place, but a spiritual place, or a state of being. In Christianity then, Jesus is still the king of Israel, but not a geopolitical Israel, but an Israel of the heart. I think that is a very important thing for us to remember. In our political climate at the moment, my impression is that everyone is very frustrated, irrespective of political stripes. In Jesus though, we have an example of someone who really didn’t care about having his ducks in a row on earth. What mattered was the heart. What mattered was manifesting God’s love in the present. As I light our chalice this morning then, I want to re-assert Jesus’ radical claim that what matters in the heart is infinitely more important than what happens out there… It reminds me of that unattributed quote, ‘Helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person’. We have one frame on this world. By loving our neighbour, we change our neighbour’s world. By manifesting love in our present, we change ours.
Jesus being born in Bethlehem was a clever literary device Luke used to affirm Jesus’ Messianic legitimacy. Another piece of evidence for it being a literary device is that it is not employed by all the Gospel writers. Luke says Jesus is born in Bethlehem, as does Matthew, but not Mark or John. Rather he is repeatedly referred to as being of or from Nazareth. And jokes are made of that fact - ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ And when Jesus starts his ministry properly, he does so first in Nazareth, and then in and around the sea of Galilee, which is not a sea, but a freshwater lake 18 miles from Nazareth, as opposed to Bethlehem which is 80 miles away. Not only are Luke and Matthew employing a literary device, they’re doing so in an entirely transparent way. The problem is not with the way it’s written, but with the way we read it. In our post-enlightenment world, we put such a high premium on historicity that we’re blind to the symbolic, parabolic, and subjective significance of these stories. When it comes to Jesus’ birth then, I think it’s more likely he was born in Nazareth than anywhere else, but really, we have no historical evidence at all. We don’t know if he was born in winter or summer. He could have been be born on the 25th December after all, we have nothing to go on. The same can be said for marking the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. These days are only significant in as far as we mark them as such. They only carry weight in as far as we bring weight to them. This may seem to diminish their significance, but really it heightens their significance, as everything in this world is only significant in as far as we imbue it with significance.
Take birthdays for example. The Bible doesn’t give us Jesus’ birthday, and only makes reference to birthdays three times. Every time, it’s not talking about a good God-fearing Jew or Christian, but a person living an ungodly life, or a pagan. The three are: in Genesis, the Pharaoh marks his birthday by executing his baker, for some reason. In the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod celebrated his birthday by beheading John the Baptist. And in the Book of Job, Job’s children celebrate their birthdays in sinful ways. It’s implied they’re having incestuous drunken orgies, and for that sin, God allows Satan to kill them all. So, birthdays don’t get good coverage in the Bible, and as such were not celebrated by Christians for a long time. It was more common to celebrate the day you were baptised, as opposed to being born. It was not until the 18th Century that celebrating your birthday became the norm. And it’s odd if you think about it – for the majority of the last 2000 years birthdays have not been marked, but now that we do mark them they seem subjectively important. They mark significant turnings in our lives, chapters.
Given my bad memory, I remember little from my childhood. I do, however, remember turning six. I remember going into school and the teacher saying to me I was a very grown up boy, because I now required both hands to count my birthday. I remember feeling as if it was a very important day. All that had happened was that in the time since my birth, this third rock from the sun had completed its sixth rotation around our solar system’s star. And yet the day did seem to mark a significant change. So significant a day I remember it clearly. I felt a strong sense, even then at six, that I was leaving the first chapter of my life, and entering the second. I remember that same sensation at other milestone birthdays. Nine felt important, as did 10, 11, 12, 13. Each year of my adolescence felt important. You’re growing quickly - physically, emotionally, intellectually, and so the marking of each year felt significant. And then 17 didn’t feel so significant. But 18 did. And then 19 didn’t feel so significant. But 20 did. Personally, subjectively, these days really felt much more important than of course they actually were. It was more than a birthday. They seemed to mark a transition in me, a transition in the way the world was, as if an old me had died, and a new me born. A new chapter, with a new me, perceiving the world in new ways.
And to think, the fact that I grew up in a culture which marks birthdays as significant is arbitrary. In most cultures throughout the centuries this has not been the case. There have been other rituals, other milestones, other traditions, which mark and break up the year, which symbolically indicate a movement from one modality of being to another. And so, this leads me to a follow-on point to last week’s address. Last week I spoke about personality, and the extent to which our personally shapes the way the world is perceived by us, which is a lot. And yet, we have very little influence over what our personality is. There is debate in the academic community around if personality can change, barring sickness, and/or emotional or physical trauma done to us. It seems like we are very limited in our ability to alter our own personality. Perhaps we can change it a bit, perhaps not at all. What you can change, however, is the stories we tell ourselves and surround ourselves with.
The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and says ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus’. For a hope will be born to us that perches in the soul, and sings a tune without words, that tomorrow we will tell a story, we will sing of a hope, and it will alter our very perception of the world. We will awaken, and we will realise that things really are different after all. The page really has turned. What seemed hopeless, seems like it might just be possible after all. What brought us down, and made us sad, and angry, it’s still there, but it doesn’t seem as large a thing as it did. Objectively what’s changed? Not much at all. And yet so much has changed. The way we see the world has changed, and so the world has changed. The narrative of the one who comes to show us the way culminates tomorrow, and in its culmination, we step from one modality to another, to a deeper, broader, more awakened state. A state of being infinitely present to ourselves. And so, we wait, just a little longer. God, our breath is bated, Spirit of Love draw near we pray. Help us not to accept your silence, but to welcome it. Indwell us, be our thoughts and our prayers, and help our own words and thoughts to slip away, as the idols they are. Indwell us, and infuse us with your depth and mystery. Now and forever.