Because on Christmas Day we only see only one tenth of the Story!
It’s a little like those gym memberships that some of us have taken out from time-to-time – you know the ones where we start off with great enthusiasm but never quite make it to the end of that three month commitment? For a variety of reasons we fail to live up to our own expectations. We struggle to go the full distance. Often it is because we have not prepared for all the consequences of the commitment.
Christmas can be a little like that, and like that iceberg, we discover that there is far more to Christ than Christmas.
The tradition that Jesus had a remarkable birth is relatively late. The stories of his birth are found only in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, both written near the end of the first century. Earlier writers (as well as the rest of the New Testament) do not refer to a special birth. Paul, our earliest writer, does not. Neither does Mark, the earliest Gospel. Moreover, though the Gospel of John is probably later than Matthew and Luke, John does not mention it either.
Early Christians did not concern themselves with this birth of Jesus. It was his teaching, death and resurrection that occupied their worship and preaching. In the very earliest documents of Christianity (most New Testament letters, and also the Gospel of Mark) there is only one passing reference to his birth.
Indeed the main Gospel message does not rely upon these stories of the birth of Jesus at all. It was clearly possible to write a gospel without mentioning the birth of Jesus. How so? Because the full essence of the story of Jesus is found in the adult Jesus’ life and witness, his death and resurrection. That is where we will discover the full consequence of the Good News. Below the surface of Christmas is the cross.
Christmas is just the tip of the ice-berg. This little baby we delight in will grow up and claim not just our delight for one day – but this baby, if we remain attentive, we will discover, grows. His teachings and actions will claim much more from us than we can perhaps anticipate – no matter how wise and thoughtful.
The adult Jesus called forth a new way of living, a new way of being. No longer would humanity have to guess at the presence of God. In this baby, we begin to have a hint of all that is to come. The consequences of this birth can only be fully appreciated if we reveal the rest of the ice-berg. We need to stay the distance.
Is it any wonder that the Christmas tree is prominently displayed in churches? The Christmas tree acts as a metaphor, a reminder, of the tree on which Jesus was crucified. The tree is always to be set within the vicinity of the cross, so that its visual proximity may cause us to think about the relationship between the two pieces of wood. In fact, some churches will take their Christmas tree, cut off the branches, cut the trunk into two pieces, and then nail those two pieces together in the form of a cross, and display that cross during Holy Week and Good Friday.
Our Christmas celebrations cannot contain the Good News – nor can the manger – the adult Christ bursts beyond our careful containment lines, this Christ will take our heart and our life, will bring us to places of challenge and possibility.
Raymond E Brown expands this understanding in his small book An Adult Christ at Christmas (1978), inviting us to put the adult Christ back into Christmas. Brown invites us to see that the infancy narratives we have in Matthew and Luke are written ‘backwards’.
Having listened and experienced the stories of the adult Jesus and who he is, the writers framed the infancy narratives, characters, settings and story-lines to reflect who the adult Jesus is. It’s a bit like hearing a proud mother of a top surgeon exclaim that she always knew her daughter would be a surgeon by the way she cut up her sausages as a small child. We might silently reflect that the mother is reading back into the childhood of her daughter the experience and reality of her daughter as an adult. The writers of the infancy narratives, Brown claims, actually wrote about (and were referencing) an adult Jesus in the details of the infancy narratives.
Whichever way we wish to engage the Christmas Story we know there is much more depth to what we can capture in one Christmas Day experience. In putting the adult Christ back into Christmas and recognising that the story-line is only a hint of the whole story – we can commit ourselves to a life-time of discovering and learning more of the adult Christ and the Good News that is birthed in him.
Centre for Theology & Ministry