As a pastor, I always disliked Christmas. It wasn’t the exhaustion at having so many duties on top of family obligations (although that’s a thing, and we should all be kind to our pastors during the holidays, because they really are exhausted). The hard thing about Christmas for me was trying to find something to say about stories that I and many in my church didn’t believe happened. The date of Christmas, the annunciation, the census, the star, the Magi — the fact is that none of these stories has any historical corroboration. As a result, many of us feel like we’re playing a grownup game of Santa Claus at Christmas. We’re pretending to believe in something we learned was a lie a long time ago, because we don’t want to burst the bubble of our younger brother who still believes.
Here’s the thing though, there is practically no extra-biblical evidence for any of the Jesus story. One of my friends who is an atheist likes to tweak people by telling them he doesn’t believe Jesus existed. I do believe Jesus was a real person, and at first I tried to argue with my friend. “It seems preposterous that the earliest Christians would create Jesus out of whole cloth,” I said. “There must be some kernel of historical fact in his story, even if it’s embellished.”
He just grinned at me, and responded, “You can’t prove it. I don’t believe it.” He’s right, and I’ve come to realize it doesn’t matter.
The power of Jesus, his life and his teachings, is not in his historicity, but in the stories themselves. I don’t need to know who wrote the Magnificat for it to strike me to my core as a beautiful poem of hope for the oppressed of the world. The fact that the story says it was sung by a young pregnant girl whose life had just been turned upside down adds to the poignancy. I know of many young people who need the truth of that song, and it inspires me to work toward a day when the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the hungry are filled with good things.
When we stop worrying about the historicity of these stories, we begin to realize they are stories that happened, that happen, and that continue to happen. The stories mean even more when I let them step outside of their first-century trappings, and reimagine them in my own time, as Everett Patterson did in this amazing print. Then I find myself asking, “How I should live my life differently, knowing there are Josés and Marias in the world?”
Today is Epiphany, the last day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, on which we celebrate the visit of the Magi to the baby in Bethlehem. For many of us who are bound by ideas of fact and Truth (always capitalized), this is one of the hardest stories to swallow. Today, however, I invite you to read the story and see what truths you can find in it.
Don’t worry about the historicity. Read it like a parable, because I think that’s how it was intended. What does it tell you about the nature of the world? How does it inspire you to imagine a world that doesn’t yet exist? How is it a story that happened, that happens, and that continues to happen? Let it happen to you. Read it for what it is, an encounter with Jesus that has the power to change you.