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So what’s new in the Christmas story?

(Article published in the Dec 6, 2006 issue of Manila Standard Today)

          Last Sunday’s gospel readings at the Catholic masses (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36) featured the universe going awry similar to, but magnified to the nth degree, what we saw in super typhoons Milenyo and Reming.  It was the first Sunday of Advent and Luke employs the rhetorical device of citing extraordinary behavior of nature and man to highlight the grandeur of the anticipated second coming of the Christ in the last days.

           As the Christmas season progresses towards its end, however, the gospel readings shift the focus from the second to the coming over two thousand years ago of a man called Jesus the Nazarene.  In said first coming, events out of the ordinary, like the star that guided the Magi as recounted in Matthew and great throng of angels as told by Luke, are also used to rhetorically stress the significance of the birth.

           It is every tempting for believers in Jesus as the Christ to invoke these extraordinary phenomena as proofs of their faith.  But a more mature reading of his nativity stories, which are in only two of the four Gospels (Matthew Chaps 1 and 2, and Luke Chap. 2), compel us to listen to theologian Hans Kung.  He tells us in his work, On Being a Christian, that accounts of extraordinary events are not unique to the birth of Jesus.  Other religious leaders or culture figures were also said to be born under similarly unusual circumstances.


           The prophet Zarathustra (aka “Zoroaster” to the Greeks who could not pronounce his name correctly), whose birth is placed by current scholars to be any time from 1400 B.C. to 1000 B.C. and somewhere by the bank of a river in what is now Iran, was born of a woman who was pregnant with child when she married.  On the 5th month of her pregnancy, she was told by an angel in a dream that she was bearing a great prophet who would be able to save the world from destruction.

           Zarathustra was thus born on the 26th of March.  There was something peculiar about him:  instead of crying, like all newborn babies do, he has a broad smile on his face, shining with a divine glow.

           In the writings attributed to Zarathustra himself, called the Gathas, there is one whose name is Saoshyant who is to be born of a virgin from Zarathustra’s miraculously preserved seed, who will bring about the final judgment of humanity and usher in harmony in the world.

           Confucious was said to have been born sometime 598 B.C. in a district in the state of Lu in, of course, China.  His birth was foretold by a unicorn and when he was eventually born, five (5) wise men came to visit.  Angels appeared and celestial music was heard in the skies.

           Buddha Skakyamuni, reputed founder of the Buddhist religion, is said to have been born in 624 B.C. in Lumbini, originally part of northern India now part of Nepal.  One night, his mother,  Queen Mayadevi, dreamed that a white elephant descended from heaven and entered her womb.  The entry of the elephant into his mother’s womb meant that on that very night she had conceived a child who was a pure and powerful being.  That the elephant descended from heaven was a sign that the child came from Tushita heaven, the Pure Land of Buddha Maitreya.

           When Queen Mayadevi gave birth to the child, instead of experiencing pain, she experienced a special, pure vision in which she stood holding the branch of a tree with her right hand while the gods Brahma and Indra took the child painlessly from her side.  They then proceeded to honor the infant by offering him ritual ablutions.

           Muhammad was born in 569 A.D. into to the Quraysh tribe.  He is the son of Abd Allah, who is son of Abd al-Muttalib (Shaiba) son of Hashim (Amr) son of Abd Manaf (al-Mughira) son of Qusai (Zaid) son of Kilab son of Murra son of Ka`b son of Lu’ay son of Ghalib son of Fahr (Quraish) son of Malik son of an-Nadr (Qais) the son of Kinana son of Khuzaimah son of Mudrikah (Amir) son of Ilyas son of Mudar son of Nizar son of Ma`ad son of Adnan who is a descendant of Ishmael, son of Abraham. 

           On his birth, the demons were debarred from the heavens, driven by arrows of meteoric fire.  Every idol feel on its face and the palaces of Kesry, emperor of Persia, trembled, and fourteen towers fell.  Lake Sivah disappeared and water flowed in the dry Valley of Samavah.  Iblees, the evil one, disappointed by the failure of his infernal friends to find out what was going on, himself swopped down on Makkah to investigate.  He was repulsed by a host of Angels.  Undaunted, he took the form of a sparrow but was detected by Angel Gabriel who eventually told him that the reason for all those cataclysmic events was the birth of the best of the prophets.

           Angelic apparitions to the dramatis personae, spectacular displays in heaven, virgin births, visits of wise men, genealogies, and other extraordinary events obviously form part of the genre of tales about the birth of beloved icons.  So, what can the story of Christmas offer that is new in Christmas story?  A lot, I submit.  They represent the earliest known efforts by Jesus’s followers to speak of their god in terms understood by those who worship other dieties.

        It was a very daunting task. As evident from the Gospel of Mark, what the first followers of Jesus remembered and celebrated was his public life and death.  Jesus of Nazareth was remembered as one who hung from the cross and was brought down confirmed dead.  In his life, he held no post of power, sacred or secular.  But his followers insist he inaugurated the reign of God in the here and now.  He always spoke of God’s special favor but, his hearers insist, particularly on those from whom life withheld the blessings of health and wealth.  Sure, he was, after three days in the tomb, for some time and by many, seen alive again, eating and walking.  But he was no longer around, and what remained was an unseen spirit burning in his followers’ hearts.

      How can such one who inverted the world's values be accepted by the world as God? The obvious solution, which was taken by the two synoptics, was thus to preface their account of his life and deeds with the language accepted by the rest as indicative of divine origin. Hence, the nativity narratives hewing to the requirements of the genre. Hopefully, they too, like the Centurion feeling the quake of the earth, would say in their hearts, "Truly, he was the Son of God" (Matthew 27:54).   

      But the uniqueness of Jesus could not be suppressed.  Thus, to prefigure the message of inversion of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, the Christmas story had a detail that said it all: on the trough from which beasts of burden eat their food and water (otherwise known as a manger), laid the laid the one who was life’s nourishment for all.

        Merry Christmas to all who have read this far.