This year I’ve had two compelling questions regarding the Christmas story. First I’ve been wondering WHY we have a Christmas story, and secondly I’ve been wondering why – given ALL the details missing from the birth story, why on EARTH Luke mentions a MANGER of all things. The two questions are of rather different LEVELS, but they’re the ones I’ve been stuck on.
The gospels of Mark and John lack Christmas stories entirely. Luke and Matthew both have them, but they are very different stories. Many excellent scholars believe that the Christmas stories of Luke and Matthew were added GENERATIONS after the rest of the books were completed. They function as “gospels in miniature”, foreshadowing the major themes each of the gospels focus on. They also function to make the stories of Matthew and Luke conform more to the literature of the day – in which stories of great heroes usually start with abnormal birth narratives to point out how important the hero is.
So, why were these “prequels” important enough to get told, and get written, and get added? Why did the early Christians want to conform to the hero-stories around them? And, once they were writing stories, why did they write them this way?
Which all gets back to the manger. In case no one has pointed it out to you yet, it is NOT normal to put new born babies in animal feeding troughs, which is exactly what a manger is. Why did Luke tell us a story of an over crowded inn, a lack of familial hospitality, and putting a baby in a feeding trough of all things!?!?
I started wondering about the symbolism of the manger. What could it mean? What was I missing? And then, the answer hit me and I felt ridiculous for never seeing it before. Those Christians of the early 2nd century were giving us a COMMUNION metaphor in the very beginning. Jesus is the bread of life, and after he was born, he was placed in a feeding trough for animals because he is related to the act of feeding creatures for the sake of life itself. At first Jesus is placed among the food, in the end Jesus feeds us with the food of life.
And then the other question clicked too. If the Christmas stories are “gospels in miniature” then they have the same basic point as the gospels themselves. Which is that God is on the side of LIFE. The Gospels all tell the story of Jesus bringing life to the people through healing, feeding, and teaching. They tell of him bringing life to the people by bringing hope and encouraging them to see the brokenness of the world and refuse to participate in it anymore – and instead to work together to build something better. Then, in the end, the Gospels all say that death did not have the final power of Jesus – and leave us to make sense of that!
The gospels are about abundant life – about living abundantly, about making space for others to live abundantly, about letting go of the fear of death in order to live abundantly. The concept of abundant life for all people is prevalent throughout the entire Bible, EVEN THOUGH most human societies have functioned to make life abundant for SOME at the expense of many. Yet, the Gospels, like the Bible, want abundance for ALL.
And that’s what Luke is doing with the Christmas story he tells too. In any other hero-narrative of the time there would have been a focus on the wealth and supernatural elements of the hero’s birth. But Luke focuses on the family’s poverty. They could not afford what they needed, and in doing so he set up the wonderful foreshadowing of the manger.
Luke has the shepherds receive the good news – not the wealthy, or the powerful, but SHEPHERDS. And the message they receive emphasis that it is about LIFE for everyone. Remember that “savior” comes form “salve” and means “heal!”
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
The message that comes to the shepherds is one of good news for ALL people, that a HEALER has come – and he will be for the poor, which you can tell because he is poor. We hear he is poor because they couldn’t pay enough to get a room – because in this story they are homeless.
This Christmas story is about life – and then it makes sense why it has to be this story. With this story added in, the Gospel Luke starts by telling a story of a new life, and ENDS by telling a story of life CONTINUED. The book of Luke is all about life, and you can tell because it starts and ends with it.
Given all this, I’m pretty grateful for this late addition to the Gospel, this Gospel in miniature. I think it does it job exceptionally well, and because of it we are able to gather this morning and celebrate our God who is a God of ABUNDANT LIFE for ALL.
Thanks be to God!
Preached on December 25, 2018 by Rev. Sara E. Baron