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What stories about Christmas should we tell the children?

(Article published in the December 21, 2001 issue of TODAY, Business Section)
 

I dread the coming of the day when I would have to tell my granddaughter the truth about Christmas.

Not of the time when, surely not too long after her present three and a half-years, she will eventually ask if there really is a Santa Claus. Like most children born in her digital age, I am certain she will see through that fake beard and red suit way before we, her elders, are prepared to admit that we had been buying the gifts that came out of Santa’s bag.

Instead, I dread the night I would have to tell her, as tell I must, that the Christmas story is not about an infant so tender and mild, sleeping in heavenly peace. That the Christmas message is not of joy, at least not the joy generated in shopping malls, but of intense conflict. That going to Christ takes more than beating a drum "pa-rapapampam" and requires, instead, being beaten yourself.
 










I think I will start by admitting that Luke and Matthew were not good historians. Luke 2 situates the birth of Jesus in context of a census edict from Cesar Augustus, "the first census under Quirinius as governor of Syria." Quirinius became governor in 6 A.D. Luke 1 talks of the birth of John the baptist "in the days of Herod, King of Judea." Herod died in 4 B.C. Since Mary’s pregnancy, according to Luke 1, began about six months after Elizabeth’s, Jesus’s birth could have occurred no later than 3 B.C., or about ten years before Quirinius became governor and could have conducted his first census.

Matthew is no better. He, like Luke, says Jesus was born in Bethlehem. During his brief stay there, Jesus was allegedly visited by three wise men. The magi, who attracted the attention of Herod, must have also attracted the attention of the neighbors. Yet, none seem to recall his being born there or hearing of such a startling occurrence. On the contrary, Jesus and his family were known, Matthew himself says, as people of Nazareth.

Luke and Matthew were not good story tellers, either. Their stories conflict with each other. For instance, while both say that Jesus’s father was Joseph, Matthew claims that Joseph was the son of Heli. "Jacob" is an alias for "Heli"? Moreover, improbabilities abound. For example, angels who were hyperactive at Jesus’ birth simply dropped out of sight during his public life in a reverse deus ex machina.

So what are the narratives of Jesus’ infancy that are neither accurate histories nor well-told tales? Biblical scholars say they are pithy prefaces that summarize the gospel proper. Because they were writing for specific audiences living in times so far from ours, Luke and Matthew now appear to us as some encrypted message.

But when decoded, each’s story of Christmas is an invitation to a man named Jesus who lived in poverty and misery (manger) though he is of the Father (Son of God, Saviour, Messiah, King, Lord) who is for all (sheperds, magi). He cast his lot among the poor (Magnificat) and was in opposition to the power (Augustus, Herod, Quirinius). He is here with us (Emmanuel) and will see us through. How, in heavens, am I to tell that to my granddaughter?

How do I make a little girl understand that the true message of Christmas moves from swaddling clothes wrapping a babe laid in a manger, to a seamless tunic over which enemy soldiers cast lots, then to the burial garment being rolled up in a place by itself, not lying with the linen wrappings, inside an empty tomb, and, finally, to that white cloth atop the alter she sees on Sundays?

 

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