In 1966 Simon and Garfunkel released a song called “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News.” As the duo sang Silent Night you could hear the voice of a news anchor delivering the news of the day. It is an understatement to say the news of the day did not exactly confirm the hopeful words of Silent Night. The message of the song turns out to be a prophetic announcement about the world even now. Or is it?
How one answers that question depends on how one views the Christmas narratives found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. There are two nativity narratives in the Bible. Many people don’t know that. And they tell quite different stories about the birth of Jesus. In one, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and Jesus is born at home. In the other They live in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem to be counted in a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. In that story Jesus is born in a stable. There are angels singing to shepherds in one and wise men from the East in the other, and we really don’t know how many wise men, just that there were three gifts presented to the infant Jesus.
Don’t take my word for it. Read the first two chapters of Luke and Matthew.
You see, our problem with Christmas is we, over time, harmonized the two stories to create a third version of the birth of Jesus. While that makes for neat pageants it prevents us from asking what the the two stories meant in the First Century as well as what they might mean for us today.
Have you ever asked what these stories mean to you? Many Christians don’t. All they worry about is asserting they were factual and therefore absolutely true. But there are two stories and they don’t agree on key “facts.” So you harmonize them and come up with a third version, one that can be defended as factually true.
Instead of asking whether the stories are factually true why not ask what they mean? I think that’s what Simon and Garfunkel were doing with “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News.” They, and in turn we try to make sense out of what is happening in our lives and in the world. We search for meaning.
Of course we could simply live in denial that the world is a mess, making Christmas a kind of temporary retreat from reality. And isn’t that tempting?
Or we could ask what these two important parables and overtures to the good news revealed in Jesus mean for us today. Yes, the world is a mess right now. But it was a mess in 1966. And it was a mess in the first century. It’s always been a mess! So, how might we find meaning in the Christmas narratives that help us live with real hope, real joy, real peace, real love?
When we see the Christmas stories as parables and overtures we just might realize they are the essence of the entire Christian gospel. They reveal the deep truth about God and how God works in a world that is a mess. They reveal how we can participate in the work of God in a world that is a mess. They remind us that despite the appearance of the seemingly overwhelming power of violence and hate in the world there is a greater power at work.
When we do that, when we participate in the life of God at work in this messy world, we experience the true hope and joy and peace and love that are the true gifts of Christmas.
To receive these gifts we must first give them away.