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‘Tis the season, and along with jingling bells, carols, and ho-ho-hos, we have the old (roasted) chestnuts: the meaning of the holiday is lost to commercialism; there’s a war against Christmas; the Christmas story is mythological nonsense…. The claims are not only tired, they are dramatically uninformed.
As far as losing the meaning of the holiday: before the malls and the internet ever got into the picture, the meaning of Christmas had already gone missing when churchgoers began to confuse story with science, or proclamation with history.
Luke 2.1-2 states, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Ancient readers knew there was no empire-wide census, and there is no evidence for a census while both Herod was king and Quirinius was governor.
Luke is not recording history, but teaching values. Acts, which is Luke’s second volume, mentions “Judas the Galilean, [who] rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered” (5:37). Luke’s question: Is your revolution like that of Judas, who perished by taking up the sword? Or is your revolution like that of the shepherds, who believed in the promise of peace on earth? Is it like that of Mary, who proclaimed the time when the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up; the hungry are filled, and the rich sent away empty (see Luke 1.52-53)?
Scientists seek the origins of the “star of Bethlehem,” as if astronomy can explain a star that “stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2.9): had a star stopped over the house, the house would have been incinerated. The text is not about astronomy, for the ancient world did not understand the size or physics of stars. Stories were told about heavenly portents appearing at the birth of most ancient heroes: the question is not, “Did this happen?” but “Whose star do you follow, and why?”
Theologians insist the title “Son of G-d” indicates that Jesus is divine. That may well be part of its function, and here the believer and the atheist will disagree. But if they stop at this juncture, they both miss another major point of the Christmas story. Luke 1.35 states that Jesus “will be called ‘Son of G-d.’ But Virgil states in the Aeneid (6): “This is he whom you so often have heard promised to you, Augustus Caesar; son of a god, who shall set up the golden age.” The title “Son of G-d” thus had political ramifications, not gynecological ones. Luke is not asking, “Do you believe Jesus is G-d,” but rather, “In what sort of G-d do you believe?”
Further, the title “Son of G-d” for Luke suggests not, or not only, divine birth, but human connection, for Luke ends Jesus’ genealogy with the notice of the “son of Adam, son of G-d” (3.38). For Luke, everyone descended from Adam is a child of G-d. The text thus asks not “Do you believe in Jesus?” but ultimately, “Do you believe in humanity? Can you see connection among, and the divine spark in, everyone?”
If believers find no corollary between dogma and deed, and if belief does not lead to justice and compassion, then they might just as well believe in the Grinch and the Island of Misfit Toys. And if atheists cannot see the true meaning of Christmas—the promotion of peace and of political and economic reform, a vision of the way the world should be, a means of questioning our values—then they are grinches and misfits. But if they ask the right questions of the texts, they may find they can all celebrate the Christmas spirit.
Amy-Jill Levine is co-author of The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (HarperOne, 2011) and co-editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford, 2011).