I recently read a story about Sir John Polkinghorn, the renowned particle physicist who, as a second career, became an Anglican priest. The members of his first parish weren’t sure if they would be able to understand sermons delivered by this very accomplished scientist. Dr. Polkingham quickly changed that perception during his first sermon at the parish. Addressing the topic of truth, Polkingham asked the question, “Why is the kettle of water boiling?” He noted that one explanation would address the rise in temperature as exciting the particles in water that causes the water to boil. Clearly, that answer is true. However, another answer may be that I am making a cup of tea to share with a friend. The second answer is also true. While both answers are equally true, they speak to different realities.
When thinking about the truth of Christmas conveyed in biblical stories about the birth of Jesus, I find Polkinghorn’s sermon illustration on truth to be very helpful. The stories concerning the birth of Jesus are found in the gospel accounts attributed to Matthew and Luke. While we commonly mix the details of the two accounts into one, Matthew and Luke recount events that conflict with each other.
In Matthew’s story, we are told that Caesar Augustus ordered a census of the Roman Empire; that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, the home of one of Joseph’s ancestors more than twenty generations prior; that a star appeared in the sky; and that astrologers brought a symbolic assortment of gifts. Luke’s story is about Mary, who learned of her pregnancy from an angel, and then visited her cousin. According to Luke, at the time of the child’s birth, angels sang in the sky and shepherds came from the fields to watch. In reviewing the details, the only agreement in the two stories seems to be that Mary had a baby and named him Jesus, a very common name in that era that means “God saves.”
Where is truth in the biblical stories of the birth of Jesus? Today we know that there is no historic evidence that Cesar Augustus ordered a census. While some astronomers suggest that there may have been a comet near the time of the birth of Jesus, there is no evidence that a star stood still in one place. We’ll never know about visits from astrologers or shepherds other than to say that there is no other record beyond the biblical accounts. For that matter, while there is some record from other historical documents that Jesus, an itinerant rabbi, existed in the first century, there is not much evidence to support any of the details many Christians hold today as factually true.
As for the facts of these two stories, we’ll never know whether they are true or not. The only evidence to support them is from the gospel accounts attributed to Matthew and Luke, and the two stories don’t even agree with each other! While the facts are not verifiable, can anyone say that the stories are true?
Both stories describe people living in difficult times. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary are forced by edict to take a long, arduous journey and then give birth to their first child in a cave. Foreign star-gazers travel from unknown lands to visit them. There are many personal difficulties, yes, even tragedies in Matthew’s story. These themes continue in Luke’s account. Luke tells of an unwed teenage girl who is lucky enough to have an older suitor marry her. The only ones who recognize the birth of the child as a wonderful event are people marginalized by society: uneducated shepherds, who live with animals; homeless old people who are down on their luck and live in the temple; and a relative who was believed to be cursed because she was barren for years. The Christmas story is surrounded by people struggling to manage with serious difficulties in life. In the midst of the human suffering and tragedy, hope is born. The very clear message in both stories is that in the midst of human struggle, a promise of a bright tomorrow dawns when and where it is least expected.
Today, in the United States, we live in a dark time. The official unemployment rate is nearly 10%. Estimates of the real rate of unemployment range from 17 to 20%. Countless people have lost their homes and savings. It seems as though the government has failed us. People are divided against one another for ideological reasons. For the last ten years, we’ve been fighting two wars that seem to have little purpose yet cost billions of dollars. We feel powerless to deal with the ways our communities and society are falling apart. While the details of today are very different from the lives of the people in the biblical narrative, we are like them: living in the midst of struggle and human tragedy. It is in this context that the truth of the Christmas story takes shape: there is hope for tomorrow! Just as the story of a child born long ago gave light to the world, the truth of Christmas is that we can find a brighter tomorrow for our world.
It makes no difference to me if there was a star, a choir of angels, or even a virgin-birth. What’s most important is the truth that hope can be born anew in any age, even in desperate times like our own. After all, isn’t the birth of hope in desperate times something that angels should sing about? When faced with difficult times, isn’t the promise of a better tomorrow worth more than gold? Yes, there is truth in the Christmas story that rings out through the night of our darkest times. This truth is vital to every generation, especially for those facing difficult times.
© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.