As Christians, we generally ignore these two gospels around Christmas time unless they are otherwise advantageous to us. Mark serves us… well, by having served Matthew and Luke enough to finagle Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. (The birth story wouldn’t have been quite the same if Mary texted her midwife and gave birth to Jesus in the spare room of her Nazarene home, right?) While we can always count on John for a spoonful of divinity-speak, Mark and John certainly don’t say anything about the supposed Bethlehemic birth of Jesus, which is what we tend to be celebrating.
Or are we? Is there anything about our Christmas celebration that would indicate we’re celebrating something more than Winter Solstice (or Festivus)? We like to think so, but we’re easily susceptible to the trap of materialism (believe it or not) and traditionalism.
Something I look forward to around Christmas and Easter is the broadcast of religious-themed programming on TV stations like the History Channel and National Geographic purporting to explore the history behind our traditions and the historicity of the holidays in general. I was reminded last night about the pagan roots of our celebrations, from the “Christmas” tree to the candles to other nonsense that has nothing to do with the birth and life of Jesus.
But these hour-long features are a topic unto themselves. Since we have no footage from many thousands of years ago, actors and actresses are hired to reinforce the stereotypes that scholarly types eventually come on screen to refute. And anytime some sort of Hebrew or Greek translation error comes into play, it is drawn out and treated like a major revelation. Six to eight minutes of solid information is stretched out into 47 minutes, and after you solicit advertising, you’ve got yourself an unnecessary hour-long block. But that’s not all! Some sort of ambiguous ending is always thrown in, so you are left with no clue why you just spent an hour of your time learning nothing in particular.
But back to those not-so-Christmasey gospels. For all of the affinity that pastors have with John (hard to ignore those way and truth and life Ἐγώ εἰμι statements), it just throws a wrench into the Bethlehemic birth story. Jesus wasn’t just God’s divine son, but he even preexisted with God before coming to Earth! While the common “good” Christian thing to do is meld these accounts into an über-Gospel, it’s important we recognize that John’s community put their gospel into writing not to augment the Synoptics, but to supplant them.
For Mark, it was enough that Jesus was and Jesus did. But predictably enough, the communities that heard his gospel started asking questions, and started thinking of him in terms of the history of Israel. Was Jesus the one who was to come? Was he “Emmanuel,” God with us? Certainly a man so knowledgeable and gracious had an eventful birth.
I’m not going to pretend like I have all of the historical answers, but we can’t deny that those people who Jesus interacted with on a daily basis didn’t ask and didn’t care where he came from, how he was born, etc. The disciples didn’t whisper to each other about it in their spare time, and they didn’t entertain such gossip about him from outsiders (biblically speaking). Either they all knew and accepted his upbringing (which would have made it into Mark) or they didn’t care. I subscribe to the latter interpretation.
Which would mean that the message of Jesus is in his message, not in his person. Not in his birth.
Which would mean that we’re wasting a lot of time worrying about the acceptance of our nativity scenes.
Which would mean that on his “birthday” (I say that very loosely), shouldn’t we be stressing his message – his vision of the Kingdom – rather than fables that were crafted after his death?
Merry Christmas, and may we come to understand what that really means.