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You can't crib the child

Most biblical scholars believe that the Christmas stories, so familiar to many (shepherds, a manger, the wise ones…), are more than biography.

They serve a theological purpose.

They answer questions such as, ‘How can we account for the extraordinary person that was Jesus? Can we track back to his origins and get a glimpse of the adult he would become?’

That these are primarily theological narratives is indicated by the fact that neither Mark, the earliest gospel, nor John, the latest, has a Christmas narrative. Likewise, Paul knows of no Christmas story. (Historically, the Christmas stories we are familiar with date from the 80’s, fifty years after Jesus died.)

These authors answer those questions, above, in different ways.

Mark’s gospel shows no interest in Jesus’ origins. It begins with John the Baptist, who prepares the way for the adult Jesus.

John’s gospel has no story of a virgin birth for it traces Jesus’ origins back to the beginning of time, ‘In the beginning was the Word…’

In the season of Advent, we don’t welcome a baby. What we welcome is the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. We welcome the adult man while pondering his origins.

I am aware that Christmas works well for children and I don’t wish to deride that.

At the same time, as adults, we need to approach nativity scenes, especially those which feature cute babies in mangers, with caution.

(Personally, I am not keen to see another shepherd with a tea towel on their head!)

I recently re-read an Australian poem, ‘Christmas storm’ by Norman Talbot, which offers a more helpful perspective.

It concludes with the line, ‘You can’t crib the baby.’

Whenever we sentimentalize Christmas, we run that risk; we crib the baby.

We confine Jesus to a paradigm of cute, lovable innocence, and then albeit unwittingly reframe love as romantic, gushy. (Think of the Vicar of Dibley Christmas special…)

The poem ‘Christmas storm’ implies a different paradigm - the onset of a storm!

Studied carefully, Luke and Matthew’s accounts of Christmas are also about the onset of a storm.

In Luke, far from having tea-towels on their heads, the shepherds were understood as morally suspect characters. They were considered reprobates, untrustworthy, in a first-century context. Moreover, in Matthew, the wise ones were gentiles, outsiders, and their arrival precipitated the mass slaughter of children.

(I often wonder how we can sing with such gusto the third verse of that wonderful carol, ‘Unto us a child is born’

Herod then with fear was filled
‘A prince,’ he said, ‘in Jewry.’
All the little boys he killed
At Bethlem in his fury.)

These ‘stormy’ frames help us to understand the coming of Jesus; he would associate with reprobates, earning the disapproval of the pious, and he would challenge those with political power, calling down the condemnation of Rome.

We should prepare for the arrival of a whirlwind.

You can’t crib the child.