Understanding the situation of Jesus’ early life, his family situation, his status as a child with no father, and his inconsequential hometown, we can begin to make sense of why Jesus was so committed to the worst and most forgotten of society. I think we often think of Jesus as one high and mighty, deigning to stoop down and notice these people. But in reality, Jesus was one of those people. He wasn’t crossing class lines; he was standing with his people, with the ones he grew up around, the ones he most understood. Jesus identified with the oppressed because he was one of the oppressed. The great teacher, the Messiah and inspiration for the world’s largest religion, was no more than provincial trash, worth no more than he could produce for the empire.
To make the stories in the Bible “science” is to demythologize them, as Tillich describes, “the removal of symbols and myths altogether.” The attempt to resist the identification and interpretation of myth in favor of the myth being reality leads to command and control structures of faith, in which the goal becomes not reading to become better understand the human relationship to God, but instead reading to affirm the power structure that claims a monopoly on interpreting the Bible (even if they don’t recognize what they are doing as such.)
Reducing Scripture to nothing but the “infallible, inerrant Word of God” negates the power of it’s variability. To give full respect and deference to the Bible and it’s writers, we must grapple with the multiplicity of form and intent we find therein. To make the Bible unquestionable and infallible is to make the Bible God, is to practice that most deadly of sins according to Paul, idolatory, in the form on Biblolatory.
The birth of a peasant boy in rural Galilee was an event of no special occasion. In a community that was largely illiterate, there would have been no time or energy wasted in remembering such details. The Nativity stories instead serve to orient Jesus as Matthew and Luke want him understood: as the Jewish messiah, as the bringer of a peaceful rule to God’s world. This was not history being written; it was myth pointing us towards Truth. As Tillich describes it,
Symbols of faith cannot be replaced by other symbols, such as artistic ones, and they cannot be removed by scientific criticism. They have a genuine standing in the human mind, just as science and art have. Their symbolic character is their truth and their power. Nothing less than symbols and myths can express our ultimate concern.
Obviously, we celebrate Christmas, and thus the birth of Christ, on December 25th. But why? There is no Biblical tradition of Jesus being born on this day. In fact, to judge from the stories of the Nativity, if you just look at what is recounted, it makes no sense for the story to be taking place in deep winter. First, if shepherds were out in the field, this indicates pasturing season, March to September. Second, it is highly unlikely that if Joseph were going to take his very pregnant wife on a long journey to Bethlehem, that he would do it in the deepest, darkest part of winter. Not exactly the best weather for travel by foot or donkey.
We all know the bearded, jolly old man dressed in red and fur, who spends Christmas Eve delivering gifts to children all over the world, with the aid of his elves and flying reindeer. Santa as we know him evolved as an amalgam of several different figures, and really took off in popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the work of various poets and writers and storytellers.