The First Noel

Christmas and its meanings

Long ago, a baby was born who would change people’s hearts and lives so greatly that 2,000 years later, 30 percent of the world would still believe in him. The day of his birth is celebrated by millions of people every year and has been for centuries. However, recently, the story of Jesus’ birth has not only been fogged over by our newest Christmas traditions, but it has been changed and reinterpreted over the past 2000 years in ways that aren’t always accurate or ethical, according to a number of Christian leaders and theologians.

The Bible has been translated and retranslated many times, and because of this, scholars state we cannot take every word literally.

The story of Jesus being born in a manger is widely known and told throughout the Christmas season.  In Luke 2:12 it says: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” However, according to a  Rev. and sacred studies teacher Jeffrey Crafton, this may not be the case.

“This is the point where there’s a lot of mistranslation and misinterpretation, I think,” said Crafton. “People have said that there’s an inn, that there’s no room, so they have to go to a stable, but Joseph was from that town. He would have had relatives there, and they would have put him up in their house. When it says there’s no room, it means that the main guest rooms in the house are taken by other family members, so they stayed in the downstairs area where the family kept the animals. That’s the typical Jewish house in Palestine.”

It’s not only where Jesus was born. An episcopal priest takes issue with the story’s emphasis on Mary’s virginity. She believes that sexuality is an important part of being a human, and that it’s unfortunate that the Christmas story seems to be teaching us that sexuality and God have to be kept separate.

“The whole ‘virgin Mary’ thing bugs me,” said the Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, rector of Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul. “We created the theory that if Mary created a baby while being a virgin, well then Mary’s mother must have been a virgin. It’s just so desperately afraid that someone might be having sex. As if that is something that is distasteful to God is ridiculous.”

Moving out of the past to things more prominent in our day-to-day lives, the value we place on the “Christmas spirit” may be insensitive to people who aren’t always able to have it.

“One pet peeve I have is the cultural expectation we put on people that they’re supposed to be happy all the time: ‘Don’t you know you’re supposed to be in the Christmas spirit?’ whatever that is,” said William McDonough, a professor of theology at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. “I just know a lot of people for whom Christmas is hard, and I’d rather they got supported than expected to be some particular way.”

A common irritant among religious expert is commercialization. The common sentiment is that Jesus is forgotten or glazed over because gifts hold such greater appeal.

“I’m not a peevish sort of person,” said the Minnehaha Rev. and sacred studies teacher Greg Ellis. “My main thing is the commercialization of Christmas. I think Jesus gets a little bit lost. It becomes more about presents and Santa than God.”

This sentiment was shared by Fr. Kevin McDonough of Incarnation Sagrado Corazón De Jesús Catholic Church in Minneapolis. “Of course I am never all that pleased with how commercialized it has become. But I don’t want to complain too much about that because the reality is that it’s a way for people to express affection and care by gift giving.”

Crafton adds that a newfangled Christmas tradition is okay “if it helps us to experience the joy of Christmas, but if it distracts us away from the true meaning of Christmas, that’s a problem.”

The commercialization of Christmas, however, can bring joy in a season of darkness according to McDonough.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that Christmas is at the darkest time of the year,” said William McDonough thoughtfully. “We need a lift. Especially us in Minnesota. The story of Saint Nick or Santa is basically: underneath it all the world is kind, and there’s more goodness than all the difficulties.”

Not only is it important that the kindness of the world shines out in dark times, but that Jesus was born to a poor family speaks to many people.

“Somehow the myth about Jesus being born in poverty survived,” said Watkins. “It would seem to me that ‘powers that be’ would want to clean that part of the story up. But no, that part of the story is stuck.”

Another belief that has remained in the Christmas story is that Jesus was a human being.

“The whole story of Christmas comes down to this: God loves people so much that God wanted to become human like us to experience all the joys and all the sorrows of human life so that we can trust that we have a God who knows what it’s like to walk in our shoes,” said Rev. Javen Swanson of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul.

Kevin McDonough said, “There’s some tendency with the great focus on gift giving in our culture to forget that it’s basically about the greatest gift of all–God becoming human. And taking our suffering on himself.”

Our understanding of the Christmas story may not be perfect, but it is theological important enough that Christians should think hard about how we represent it, and remember that it’s not all about the presents, or the food, or the holiday break. The real meaning of the Christmas story, according to William McDonough is: “In the place you’d least expect, with poor stinking shepherds, God chose to identify with human beings.”

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About Patrick Cullinan

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