A few years ago someone whose faith is different from mine asked me, “Don’t you find it strange that your religion makes jewelry out of an instrument of torture?”
At the time my mom had recently had a debilitating stroke, and I was wearing a white gold cross pendant that she had given me when I was a teenager after I had been baptized. I seldom wear it, but I’d put it on that day because I was feeling sad for the loss of the mom I knew, and it brought me comfort. It isn’t worth a lot, even when the price of gold is up, but it is the most expensive Christmas gift she bought during my childhood, and she bought it at a time when she and Dad had little money to spare.
I tilted my head and pondered what my acquaintance had asked. “I suppose so,” I admitted. I thought for a moment, Why not a baby in a manger on a chain? But only two of the four Gospels tell the story of the birth of a baby. And the two genealogies that trace Jesus’ ancestors don’t match. Both trace the lineage of Joseph, not Mary, and they’ve left biblical scholars still trying to explain them 2000 years later.
Though I love Christmas, my favorite account of Jesus’ entry into the world isn’t those stories with mangers and angels. In fact, my favorite story is in what was once my least favorite of the Gospels—John, that zealous story that so many Christians use to insist their faith as the only way to God, a concept that continues to baffle me. I believe that God comes to us in as many ways as there are people in this world, and I don’t feel that my faith is threatened by any other faith’s understanding of God. But I love John’s description:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God….And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1-2, 14 NRSV)
God and the ways of God are often unfathomable. I sometimes have more questions than answers. But the stories of the man Jesus who was fully human, fully divine—who lived and breathed and celebrated and suffered as we do—that I understand.
When, as an English teacher, I taught Greek mythology in the heart of the Bible Belt in Appalachia, my students and I had lengthy discussions about the concept of “willing suspension of disbelief.” For those of you who haven’t had an English class in a while, willing suspension of disbelief is a phrase coined by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to describe what happens when a reader agrees to believe the unbelievable for the sake of enjoying a story that isn’t entirely realistic.
Though my students willingly suspended their disbelief for a Star Wars film or a story about Superman, they often questioned how the Greeks could possibly have believed that Cronus swallowed his children or that, instead of swallowing baby Zeus, he swallowed a rock that Rhea wrapped in swaddling clothes to save her baby’s life. Rarely did my students see the similarities in details among all the creation stories we read. To them, there was only one Creation story.
I explained to them that to the people who believed these explanations of the origins of humanity, these were religious stories—that they only became myths when people believed something different. I asked them to imagine how people thousands of years from now might look at the story of the Baby Jesus. “What if they come to see our version of God and Jesus as myth?”
Though my students couldn’t fathom the possibility of Christianity as myth, they did entertain the question. If I posed that question in many sectors of the country today, I’d probably be fired—or at least reprimanded. But in the late 1970s I was permitted to ask it, which led to lively and engaging discussions. And no one doubted my own devotion to my Christian faith because I’d asked an interesting question.
When Christians entertain such thoughts today, they are soundly judged and condemned by conservative Christians. “So how can you call yourself a Christian,” they ask, “if you don’t believe 100% in the Virgin Birth?”
It is a pointless argument. None of us can prove what happened over 2000 years ago in a manger in Bethlehem. And, thankfully, they won’t get to be the ultimate judge of the depth of my faith.
Frankly, I don’t understand those who insist Christianity is under attack and who respond in ways that are wholly un-Christlike. The early Christians were often attacked, and all of the stories that have been passed down to us show them responding—to the point of death—with grace, with love, with light. No one would ever have needed to accuse them of having “Christian privilege.” Such responses result, instead, from those who screech most loudly over our airwaves—those who remind me far more of the self-righteous religious people Christ condemned, rather than of the Christ by whose name they are called. And, honestly, if Jesus is who we believe him to be, then he’s tough enough to withstand the questions and the scrutiny of scoffers.
What I know is that when I look at the whole of the life of Christ—at the example he set for us, I believe. 100%. I can embrace him when he says that Love is the most important commandment, when he feeds the hungry and cares for the least among us. I can cheer him on when he criticizes the rich and the self-righteous, when he challenges religious leaders. I can even understand him in the stories that seem cruel at first glance—the woman he answers harshly when she tells him even the dogs get the crumbs from underneath the table. I actually like it when he seems to say to her what the church leaders might say and then turns it around and says the opposite. I love it when he doodles in the sand when the church leaders want him to stone a woman for adultery, but then he tells them that they can cast the first stone…if they have never sinned.
Yes, this is the Jesus I can believe in with all my heart and mind and soul and strength. The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, who still dwells in the muck with us—in the White House and in Congress, in a Charleston church and at a San Bernadino office party, in our schools and in our churches—despite all the anger and hatred. None of us can truly fathom the great I AM that still IS—in every human being. But I’m absolutely certain that God didn’t stop dwelling among us once Jesus left this earth.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Yes, I believe. And I believe that every human being, of every faith and none, is at the core, one with God. And that is the babe I celebrate—the child Jesus who grew up to teach us what it truly means to be God’s presence in the world. That is the blessing of Christmas.