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The cover of the book The First Christmas
The First Christmas

Posted on 15 December 2010, 6:28

The past few days I’ve been getting my head into the Christmas story by reading The First Christmas, by theological adventurers Marcus J Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

For several years, I’ve been seeing the birth stories in Matthew and Luke as beautiful, folksy, kitschy, dramatic… and highly improbable. After all, they have a very high angel count, they fly in the face of known historical dates, and they cite significant events that are not mentioned in any other records.

What I’ve enjoyed about Borg and Crossan’s book is the way they shift your attention from the search for facts in these stories, to the search for meaning. They argue that the most important questions are not about what happened when (for example, all the modern attempts to tie the star of Bethlehem to a supernova or Halley’s Comet), but what Matthew and Luke were trying to tell us when they wrote as they did. And sure enough, when you leave behind the quest for facts and look at these stories as literature, they come to life in a fresh and colourful way.

I’d never noticed, for instance, how very different Matthew’s birth story is from Luke’s. I’ve always read them as if they’re two cameras trained on the same scene, when a closer look shows they are making quite separate movies.

In Luke, Mary is the starring character. It’s to her that Gabriel appears, and it is her active ‘yes’ to God which drives the story. But in Matthew, Mary is a passive, offstage figure. It is Joseph who receives the revelation from the angel, and it is his dreams and decisions which count throughout the story.

Why Matthew and Luke tell their stories so differently, and what messages they want to give about Jesus and his mission, is one of the big themes of this book. It’s one of those books which makes you realise how much more there is to discover in the Gospels… which I find a hopeful and exciting thought.

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