There’s a theme so intimately tied to Christmas that most of us can’t think of Christmas without it. And yet it was only recently invented. It’s from Charles Dickens’ book, A Christmas Carol, written in the mid 1800’s. A recent film calls Dickens “The Man Who Invented Christmas”! And with regard to how he changed the way we see Christmas, it’s true.
Prior to his book, Christmas wasn’t respected all that much. The Puritans, which included the American Pilgrims, actually opposed its celebration. The Massachusetts Bay Colony banned it in 1659. For these religiously minded Christians, a Christian holiday, Christmas!, was actually regarded as a spiritual distraction.
But Dickens book changed all that. The theme he established in his book was that of a selfish miser alienated from friends and family who is transformed into a generous person by the spirit of Christmas. And that theme has gone on being repeated in nearly every Christmas story since. George Bailey turns into a Scrooge and needs the angel Clarence at Christmas to show him why he should continue being generous. Dr. Seuss’ black-hearted Grinch is also a Scrooge transformed when he witnesses the Christmas spirit in the the citizens of Whoville. And it’s that same Spirit of Christmas which comes in Buddy the Elf, a man who, having been raised by Santa’s elves, brings Christmas love and cheer to his miserly and black-hearted father who could have just as easily been named, yeah you guessed it, Ebeniser Scrooge.
But there’s an older theme to Christmas which all too many miss today. It’s present in the Nativity scene and gospel accounts which we read every Christmas time. There’s Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. There’s the Shepherds and the Wisemen. But what’s the theme? Have you ever stopped to think about it? Who are these people and what do they represent? There’s more to this scene then a reminder to us that it happened. The Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth are, in fact, all about how outsiders became insiders and insiders outsiders in the arrival of Jesus.
Like most introductions, these opening gospel scenes define/encapsulate the gospels themselves. Take the story of Zachariah for instance (Luke 1). It’s not just a historical record of the birth announcement of John the Baptist. It’s set in contrast to the announcement made to Mary. The two are compared in the way their stories parallel one another. What happens to Zachariah happens in the same way and order to Mary. But it’s a comparison which also sets up a contrast. Zachariah is an elderly priest, working in Jerusalem and the temple. He’s probably rich and highly educated. Oh and he’s a man. He’s what every good Jew aspires to be. Mary, on the other hand, is from the nowhere town of Nazareth, way outside the halls of power and prestige. She’s a teenage girl, poor and uneducated. But the same happy announcement (good news / gospel) is given to both. And yet their reactions are very different. Zachariah asks “how can I know these things for certain”, a question full of cynicism and doubt. Mary asks “how will this happen because I am a virgi?” By contrast, her question isn’t doubtful. It’s is an expectant request for information. Zachariah’s doubt causes Gabriel to shut Zachariah’s mouth. Mary’s faith causes her mouth to be opened and to sing. If you follow the parallel structure of these two stories it’s something like this
Mary sings at D which suggests that Zachariah should have had a D but instead his mouth is shut. The insider has become the outsider and the outsider the insider in the coming of the gospel / good news. Zachariah and Mary each represent a people group. Zachariah represents men, the rich, the educated, the “mature.” And also the Jews. Mary, by contrast, represents women, children, the poor, the uneducated, oppressed, and following the story of Luke/Acts, she also represents Gentiles. So the Nativity begins with a story about someone who should have believed but didn’t and the story of someone who shouldn’t have believed but did.
The promise and hope established in Luke’s nativity, however, does extend to the rich and powerful and the Jews as well that they too will ultimately come to saving faith, even if they missed out on it the first time around. Zachariah, in the end, obeys the angels words and in that moment his mouth his opened like Mary before him. Insider and outsider both become insiders together.
Now that theme is also played out in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew, it’s outsiders, pagan astrologer/magicians from the east who come seeking Jesus after they see his sign. We call them Wisemen but they come as Outsiders. Herod, the king of the Jews, however is an insider but doesn’t seek the Christ child like them. It’s only when they fail to do the work for him that he turns and has the infants in Bethlehem killed. This act exposes Herod, the insider, as the true outsider. We see this theme also in Matthew in the women of Jesus’ genealogy, all of which were fornicating gentiles but which lead to the birth of Christ.
Back in Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph are forced to leave their own hometown to another place where they receive no welcome. Jesus is born in a barn and placed in a manger. Here we see Mary and Joseph become further outsiders. But most importantly, we should see that it’s God who has made himself an outsider to identify with them.
And we shouldn’t fail to see this in the shepherds as well. Shepherds were a lonely bunch, they worked alone and were therefore given the job because they were often mentally ill and couldn’t get along with others. There was always something not quite right with shepherds. But it’s to these outsiders that the message of hope comes. And they journey to Bethlehem to become insiders at Jesus’ birth.
Long before Charles Dickens rewrote the theme of Christmas, it already had one, there in the Nativity, where those who were formerly outcasts became one with God.