Fantasy, Fact, and Faith

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

Christmas is a time for fantasy. Jolly old St. Nicholas is a wonderful character, and we delight in telling and acting out his story of joyous giving. It is "make believe," of course, but nonetheless wondrous. Also, it has its own measure of truth, for giving can be even more rewarding than receiving, as all of us know.

The story beginning with the birth of Jesus is read by Christian literalists simply as a factual account. In truth, however, the narrative is a combination of fantasy and fact. Although some scholars dispute that Jesus actually lived, the evidence is credible that there was a man named Jesus, who was born into a Jewish family living in the Roman province of Palestine, and whose life inspired others, who remembered him as the fulfillment of Israelite prophecy. Yet, there are also elements of fantasy in the story of Jesus. For instance, the letters of Paul, which were written before the gospels, reveal no awareness of the claim to Jesus' "virgin birth," which is included in both the gospel birth stories. As no one can seriously doubt Paul's conviction, such a fantastic element in the story of Jesus is clearly unnecessary for Christian faith and was not part of the story of Jesus told by the early churches we know about because of Paul’s letters in the New Testament.

Surprisingly, the gospels of Mark and John also begin without birth stories. As late as the last quarter of the first century of our era, Christians did not find it necessary in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus the Christ to include a birth story. Moreover, the birth stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are very different, so it is hard to see them merely as factual reports. In the gospel of Matthew the angel speaks to Joseph, and wise men from the East come bearing expensive gifts for the new king. In the gospel of Luke, the angel speaks to Mary, and poor shepherds gather around the manager. In the gospel of Matthew, the birth of Jesus emphasizes the fulfillment of Israelite prophecy and Jewish hope for the coming of the Messiah. In the gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is identified with God's outreach to the Gentiles for the sake of the poor of the world.

Thus, in the telling of each story we move beyond fact and fantasy to faith. The story of the birth of Jesus is part of the faith of the church. The gospels testify to Christian faith in the stories of Mary and Joseph, a manger in Bethlehem, shepherds gathering around the newborn babe, and wise men bringing gifts. Perhaps we can say that our faith is a decision about a Bible story that is both factual and fantastic. At the intersection of fact and fantasy, at the center of the cross of Christ, we are confronted with a choice: What story of life will we live?

The Christmas story begins a gospel narrative that is offered not simply as a biography or an historical account of a great man, who lived two millennia ago. The gospel story presents a way of life, to all those who hear it. As human beings, we are free to choose how we live and what we live for. All stories offer choices about living, and the gospel story presents a story calling us to live with Christian faith. Once we take up this story in our own lives, we are part of it and no longer free simply to do as we like. As Christians, we are followers of the God, who chose to be born to poor parents in an oppressed country. Therefore, we cannot be indifferent to all those who are poor and oppressed, for each of "the least of these" (Mt. 25:40) bears for us the face of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.

Enter into this story once again with joy and wonder. Recover some of your "child-like" excitement about Christmas. Enjoy the fantastic elements of the story, and acknowledge the troubling facts. Then embrace the faith that the story represents — trust in the God, who chose to be "God with us" in the life of a poor Jewish peasant — and testify that this gift of love to us and to all humankind is cause for joy. © Robert Traer 2016