Katharine from Richmond, Virginia asks: What is it about this Jesus that you find so compelling? When I hear the Christmas story from the Bible I believe that I am listening to fairy tales. Stars do not announce the birth of a human being. Angels do not sing to hillside shepherds. Virgins do not conceive and give birth. Is there something behind the old mythology that I am missing? Can you still, with any integrity, refer to Jesus as “the son of God”?
Thank you for your questions. Not only are they important ones but they give me the opportunity to articulate my deepest convictions about this Jesus in the column that will go out to my subscribers on Christmas Eve. So I shall frame my answer to you in the form of a Christmas meditation, for this Jesus has always both fascinated and attracted me.
My deepest self-definition is that I am a Christian, by which I mean that in Jesus of Nazareth I believe I see the meaning of God most clearly. This experience of an in-breaking divine presence is what I believe created the Christmas traditions that you refer to in your question. Certainly during this season they are omnipresent.
It was more than two thousand years ago that the historic figure we call Jesus lived. It was a life of relatively short duration, only thirty-three years. At most only three of those years were devoted to a public career. Yet, that life appears to have been a source of wonder and power to those who knew him. Tales of miraculous power surrounded him. Words of insight and wisdom were believed to have flowed from his lips. Love and freedom seemed to be qualities that marked his existence. Men and women found themselves called into being by him. Those laden with guilt discovered, somehow, the joy of forgiveness in him. The alone, the insecure, the warped and twisted found him to be a source of peace. He possessed the courage to be who he was. He is described in terms that portray him as an incredibly free man. Jesus seems to have had no internal needs that drove him to prove himself – no anxieties that centered his attention on himself. He rather appears to have had an uncanny capacity to give his life away. He gave love, he gave selfhood, he gave freedom, and he gave them abundantly – wastefully, extravagantly.
Lives touched by his life were never the same. Somehow life’s secret, its very purpose, seemed to be revealed in him. When people looked at him they were somehow able to see beyond him, and even through him. They saw in his life the Source of all life that expanded them. They saw in his love the Source of love and the hope of their own fulfillment. This kind of transforming power was something they had not known before.
Freedom is always scary. People seek security in rules that curb freedom. So his enemies conspired to remove him and his threat to them. From one perspective it might be said that they killed him. When one looks more closely at the story, however, it might be more accurate to say that he found in himself the freedom to give his life away and to do so quite deliberately. He died caring for those who took his life from him. In that moment he revealed a love that could embrace all the hostilities of human life without allowing those hostilities to compromise his ability to love. He demonstrated rather dramatically that there is nothing a person can do and nothing a person can be that will finally render any of us either unlovable or unforgivable. Even when a person destroys the giver of life and love, that person does not cease to be loved by the Source of love or called into life by the Source of life. That was his message or at least that is what people believed they had met in this Jesus. Such a life could not help but transcend human limits. For this kind of love can never be overwhelmed by hatred; this life can never finally be destroyed by death.
Is it any wonder that people had to break the barriers of language when they sought to make rational sense out of this Jesus experience? They called him the Son of God. They said that somehow God was in him. So deeply did people believe these things that the way they perceived history was changed by him. To this day we still date the birth of our civilization from the birth of this Jesus.
They believed that he was able to give love and forgiveness, acceptance and courage. They believed that he had the power to fill life full. Since people tended to define God as the Source of life and love, they began to say that in this human Jesus they had engaged the holy God.
When they began to write about this transforming experience they confronted a problem. How could the human mind, which can only think using human vocabulary, stretch far enough to embrace the God presence they had experienced in this life? How could mere words be big enough to capture this divine meaning? Inevitably, as they wrote they lapsed into poetry and imagery. When this life entered human history, they said, even the heavens rejoiced. A star appeared in the sky. A heavenly host of angels sang hosanna. Judean shepherds came to view him. Eastern Magi journeyed from the ends of the earth to worship him. Since they were certain that they had met the presence of God in him, they reasoned that God must have been his father in some unique way. It was certainly a human reference but that is all we human beings have to use. Life as we know it, they said, could never have produced what we have found in him. That is why they created birth traditions capable of accounting for the adult power that they found in him.
Our modern and much less mysterious world reads these birth narratives and, assuming a literalness of human language that the biblical writers never intended, say “How ridiculous! How unbelievable! Things like that just do not happen. Stars don’t suddenly appear in the night to announce a human birth. Angels do not entertain hillside shepherds with heavenly songs. Virgins do not conceive. These things cannot be true.”
On one level those criticisms are accurate. Things like that do not happen in any literal sense. But does that mean that the experience this ecstatic language was created to communicate was not real. I do not think so.
The time has come for Christians, when we try to talk about God, to face without being defensive, the inadequacy of human language. These stories were never meant to be read literally. They were written by those who had been touched by this Jesus. That is why they challenge our imaginations and sound so fanciful and unreal. Our minds are so earthbound that our imaginations have become impoverished. Literal truth has given way to interpretive images. When life meets God and finds fulfillment one sees sights never before seen, one knows joy never before experienced, and one expects the heavens to sing and dance in celebration.
The story of Christmas, as told by the gospel writers, has a meaning beyond the rational and a truth beyond the scientific. It points to a reality that no life touched by this Jesus could ever deny. The beauty of our Christmas story is bigger than our rational minds can embrace. For when this Jesus is known, when love, acceptance, and forgiveness are experienced, when we become whole, free and affirmed people, the heavens do sing “Glory to God in the Highest,” and on earth there is “Peace and Good Will among Us All.” Hence, we Christians rejoice in the transcendent beauty and wonder of this Christmas story. To those who have never stepped inside this experience we issue an invitation to come stand where we stand and look through our eyes at this babe of Bethlehem. Then perhaps they too will join those of us who read these Christmas stories year after year for one purpose only: to worship the Lord of life who still sets us free and who calls us to live, to love and to be all that we can be. That is why the Christmas invitation is so simple: Come, come, let us adore him.
How do we adore him? In my mind the answer to that query is clear. I adore him not by becoming religious or by becoming a missionary who seeks to convert the world to my understanding of Jesus. I do it rather by dedicating my energies to the task of building a world where everyone in this world might have an opportunity to live more fully, love more wastefully and have the courage to be all that they were created to be. This is the only way I know how to acknowledge the Source of Life, the Source of Love and the Ground of Being that I believe that I have experienced in this Jesus. How can one adore the Source of Life except by living? How can one adore the Source of Love except by loving? How can one adore the Ground of all Being except by having the courage to be all that one can be. It is not possible to seek these gifts for oneself and then deny them to every other life. So our task as disciples of Jesus is to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that we can be while we seek to enable every other person, in the infinite variety of our humanity, to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that each person can be. That also means that we can brook no prejudice that would hurt or reject another based on any external characteristic, be it race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. It all seems so simple to me. God was in Christ. That is the essence of what I believe about this Jesus.
Have a blessed and holy Christmas.
— John Shelby Spong
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