I have an important announcement. We missed the millennium. You hadn't noticed? Well, we did. It was last year - 1996. How do I know? The Jesus Seminar told me so.
The Jesus Seminar is a symposium of biblical scholars who have concentrated with a laser-like focus on what Jesus actually said and did. They have an unusual democratic process for determining what is and what is not authentic in the Gospel accounts: voting on each passage, color coding the results.
Red means "I think Jesus really said (or did) that"; pink - a weak red - means "sounds like him" but with less certainty and probable later modification; black suggests words and deeds ascribed to Jesus by the later church; and gray means "Well, maybe", words he may not have said though they reflect his ideas.
So, the Lord's Prayer, for example, has each of the four colors - a combination of what he probably did say, what he might have said, but severely edited and added to by his followers, and what he probably did not say. It is a whole new way of reading the Bible - and not for the faint-hearted.
Getting back to the millennium. Assuming that by millennium we mean 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, we did miss it. The virtual consensus of biblical scholars is that Jesus of Nazareth was born about 4 years B.C.E. - Before the Common Era. Why the discrepancy? Our current calendar was calculated in the sixth century by Dionysius Exiguus, which translated into English means "Denny the Dwarf." His calculations were about four years off.
This is an example of deconstruction, a literary movement originating in mid-20th century France, in which "no text can have a fixed, coherent meaning." It seems as if everything is being "deconstructed" these days - every tradition is being taken apart - every last fragment analyzed. The problem is that sometimes that which is deconstructed needs to be reassembled into something new - at least if it has value. And so today I take on the task of deconstructing and reassembling the Christmas myth.
Early Christians showed little interest in celebrating the birth of their savior. The Gospels of Mark and John have no stories of Jesus' birth. Paul doesn't mention them. Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke were written more than a generation after Jesus' death. They are hardly video-tape replays.
It was the competition of emerging Christianity with the mystery cults, most notably sun-worshipping Mithraism, that spurred interest in creating a "Christmas" celebration. The Romans celebrated December 25 as the "Natalis Invicti," "the birthday of the unconquered God," the sun, as a winter solstice festival. It was to that popular pagan festival that the 4th century Christians attached the birth of Jesus. It was quite simply "a pact with pagans."
What really happened on the "first Christmas"? The time of year is unknown. March 28, April 2, April 19, and May 20 all had supporters, both because of astrology and numerology. After all the shepherds tended their flocks around Bethlehem by night only from mid-March to mid-November. They are never out during the cold midwinter season. The first mention of the birth of Jesus on December 25, the date of the Roman Saturnalia, was in the year 336 CE. Since most Christians lived in the Roman Empire, that date won out. It was not until 1223 that the Christmas nativity scene with people and animals was built by St. Francis of Assisi.
The virgin birth. Such notables as Plato, Romulus, Augustus, and Alexander the Great were also thought to have been supernaturally born of virgins. As Jesus rose in stature, it was natural that he should join their company. The Hebrew word for "virgin" is more properly translated "young woman" or "young maiden." In the Gospel of Matthew we have Joseph wondering about the pregnancy of his beloved before they had even lived together. He was about ready to call the whole thing off until an angel set him straight and told him that God was responsible. And, technically speaking, Jesus was illegitimate, since Joseph was only betrothed - engaged - to Mary.
Bethlehem was probably not the birth place; Jesus' parents lived in Nazareth, at that time a rather inconsequential village. And so, later writers wanted to place Jesus in the tradition of the predictions of the Hebrew prophet Micah of a Messiah who would be born in Bethlehem, the historic birthplace of King David. Luke fabricated the story of the famous trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, inserting the story of a tax payment that was instituted years later.
As to angels, which are very popular today, but no more real now than then: While the Middle-Eastern nativity story used angels as the heavenly symbol of choice, at the equally miraculous birth of the Buddha in India, elephants appeared in the sky; in China the birth of Confucius was accompanied by dragons in the heavens. One supposes that the advantage of Christian angels over Buddhist elephants and Confucian dragons is that they could sing.
The star in the East is problematic. While some Christian believers point to a convergence of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in 7 B.C.E., the Jesus Seminar and most scholars simply find the luminous star a deft poetic touch. Stars had religious meaning in those days, and the author of Matthew wanted the Messiah's birth to square with ancient Hebrew texts.
The wise men from the East as portrayed by Matthew, but not Luke, are variously thought to be astrologers, kings, or part of the Hebrew wisdom tradition. The books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon were presumably written by these old-world philosophers. Matthew wrote the magi in - again - to tie into ancient Jewish traditions.
So much for deconstructionism. As my seminary Bible professor said, we don't know enough about Jesus to write a decent obituary, much less an accurate birth story. Jesus was not born of a virgin, not born of David's lineage, not born in Bethlehem, no stable, no shepherds, no star, no Magi, no massacre of the infants, and no flight into Egypt. The birth narratives are pure fiction - the stuff of myth and legend - written to impress upon the readers his cosmic importance as Savior, Son of God, Messiah. In the parlance of the Jesus Seminar these stories are color-coded in black - what the later church said about Jesus - not what actually happened.
So what? Despite the fictitious nature of the story, it has captivated people down through the ages. Why? And what does it mean for Unitarian Universalists?
The birth stories of Jesus are mythology. Mythology in our literalistic time is denigrated because it is not reducible to scientific fact. Mythology is more poetry than prose, and we live in a prosaic period. In this instance, the Nativity stories stand as a sublime portrait of the birth of a prophet of the human spirit. The lovely legends surrounding the birth of Jesus break through the matter- of-factness of our time and remind us there is more to life than fact.
I believe there are two kinds of truth: objective and subjective. Objective truth has to do with facts that can be demonstrated. Subjective truth has to do with values which are very hard to substantiate. The fact that objectively there never was a "first Christmas" - at least in the biblical sense - is of little moment . Subjectively, however, there is much of value.
Here was an infant born to poor peasant parents in a donkey shed in small, remote town in a minor province among a conquered people of no particular importance. No royal birth; no Messiah; no Son of God; no "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" as we hear in Handel's Messiah. (Isa. 9:6).
I find the humble birth stories in Matthew and Luke indicative of the man for others, who had a special calling to serve the world's outcast, downtrodden, poor. Matthew and Luke spun more than a good yarn - they caught up in charming poetry the drama of love and birth, of peace struggling with strife, of our need for heroes - for prophets of the human spirit - for those whose lives show us a better way.
What really happened on the "first Christmas" pales into insignificance beside the kernel of truth in the Nativity - the constant renewal of life. Birth is a constant reminder that the Creative Life Process has not yet given up on the foibles of its creatures. Birth is a metaphor reminding us we can begin again and yet again.
As my predecessor David Rhys Williams wrote: "Let us withdraw from the cold and barren world of prosaic fact if only for a season; that we may warm ourselves by the fireside of fancy, and take counsel of the wisdom of poetry and legend."
Whether you believe with the Jesus Seminar that we missed the millennium or that it is really in the year 2000 doesn't really matter. Again this season we gaze upon the familiar scene, the story that never wears out. In imagination we are in Bethlehem peering into a stable by the light of a star. There is the age-old trio of mother, father, child. There are glistening angels, the quite ordinary animals, the faithful shepherds, and the wise ones from the East.
We look for the miracle of which we have heard. But there is no miracle. There is only love and light and birth, as common as everyday. Or is this the miracle? It all depends on what you mean by miracle.
Is it not miracle that we are - at all? We are, then, gazers at stars - bearers of myth - tellers of tales - lovers of legends - observers at birth and death - singers of songs - worshippers of words - vehicles of love and life - bearers of this moment's miracle.