Comedy in the nativity

The meaning of Christmas has lost its impact

By David Galston | 12.21.2018

Scholarship teaches doubt. It teaches us how to raise good questions, offers us the tools to answer those questions, and trains our minds to critique and re-examine the answers in search of further good questions. With scholarship as both the core and content of Westar’s foundation, it’s hard to approach the birth of the “Christ child” without historical skepticism and a bit of cultural cynicism. Nevertheless, the season demands some reflections, and it also offers a chance to remember why the Christmas story remains significant.

The birth of Jesus is recorded, that is, made up, in two of the synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke. However, the fact that the authors created the birth stories does not render the stories useless. The stories let us know two things at least. Since the stories are the creations of the authors, they reveal the unique concerns or theologies of the authors. Secondly, the theologies involved in the stories allow us some insight into what at least two of the early Christ communities thought was important about Jesus.

Matthew and Luke are quite different, though they blend together in our minds. Matthew has the house (Luke has the manger), and Matthew has the Magi from the East (Luke has the shepherds in the field). Somehow, this whole crew usually ends up together in the average Christmas Creche, but that’s another story.

There are many things to notice about these stories, and in limited space it’s difficult to get into details. Both stories hold a certain amount of comedy. For example, why does Luke have angels, who make a lot of noise, sing about the incredible birth of the Messiah to isolated shepherds in a field? Royal proclamations are not made to nobodies in the middle of nowhere. It seems like a kind of joke. Why does Matthew have distinguished sages from the East, presumably Zoroastrian Priests or scholars, arrive in Jerusalem during the reign of King Herod to state that they are looking for Herod’s replacement? This also seems slightly awkward and comical. Bob Funk’s preferred description of the historical Jesus was “comic savant.” We often think that the gospel writers did not have very good ears for the biting satire that parables can offer. But maybe on occasion, and maybe with the birth narratives particularly, the gospel writers were able to offer a bit of humor of their own.

Good humor, though, is satirical because it is both funny and true at the same time. This facet to humor makes, or at least indicates, that even in its most standard expressions – or what became the standard of the synoptic gospels – Christianity is political. At its heart and in its memory is the revolution of the world order. The revolution is not very good news for the powerful and the mighty. Matthew’s joke at Herod’s expense indicates that the gospel writer knows that in the Messianic world, which the gospel writer anticipates, corrupt politicians who exploit the poor will be persona non grata. Luke understands that the good news, the world transforming news, is first to be delivered to the poor, the outcast, the isolated, and the marginalized. Luke further recalls, in the Magnificat at 1:53, traditional Hebrew songs of praise (like Hannah’s in I Samuel 2) where divine action means the hungry are fed and the wealthy are left empty handed. This alternative, upside down, form of “gospel” that Luke supports gives sense to the apparent satire scene of the shepherds.

We often get reminded that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, and that is the real meaning. “Real meanings,” these days, are hard to talk about; however, we might venture to say that the real meaning of Christmas is a revolution. The real meaning, at least to these two unknown gospel writers Matthew and Luke, is that the world order is to be changed and that the most vulnerable in society are to be first.

It would be nice if, especially at this time of year, governments passed massive legislation to support equal opportunities in education, health care for everyone, low cost housing for the homeless, and access to good food for the hungry instead of passing massive legislation to build a wall. It’s hard to say “Merry Christmas” against this background, not due to political correctness but due to Christmas not really meaning anything anymore in relation to the birth of Christianity. Still, one must be positive and work to ensure that the world we leave to the next generation is a better world than the one we entered. We can be thankful for being alive and engaged with others in love and care for our fellow human beings. And at Westar, we can thank all our supporters and wish for everyone that new learning and growth in 2019 will also mean new opportunities to change this world for the better.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

1 reply
  1. Michael Backlund says:

    “At its heart and in its memory is the revolution of the world order. The revolution is not very good news for the powerful and the mighty.” So wonderfully put, David. We all would do well to remember for whom Jesus was good news and for whom he was and is not.

Comments are closed.