Is the Christmas Story Midrash on Our Own Times?

Iraqi children bring Christ Child to Creche on Christmas
Iraqi children bring Christ Child to Creche on Christmas

Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic sister who is now an authority on religious history.  Armstrong has a very nice commentary in the LA Times on the true meaning of the Christmas story in the Bible.

She says, if we study the Christmas story carefully we are left with a disturbing sense that the world’s future lies with the very people cast to the margins. Read an excerpt below:

For the rabbis, scripture was not an arcane message from the past but a miqra, a summons to action in the present. Similarly, Matthew and Luke designed the Christmas story as a program of action for their mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles, who were attempting the difficult task of living and worshiping with people hitherto regarded as alien. Their Gospels make it a tale of inclusion: From the very beginning, Jesus broke down the barriers that divided people, so Jesus’ followers must gladly welcome outsiders into their midst.

If, therefore, we read the Christmas story as commentary, as Midrash, it becomes a miqra for our own time, and for circumstances the evangelists would recognize. We might, for example, reflect on the fact that Matthew’s Magi probably came from Iran. Or note that in our multicultural societies, we must come to terms with people who are different from ourselves and whose presence in our lives may challenge us at a profound level. Moreover, as a species, we are bound tightly to one another — electronically, financially and politically. Unless we manage together to create a just and equitable global society, in which we treat all nations with respect and consideration, we are unlikely to have a viable world to pass on to the next generation.

The Gospels paint a picture that is very different from the cozy stable scene on the Christmas cards. They speak of deprivation and displacement. The Messiah himself is an outsider. There is no room in the inn, so Mary has to give birth in the 1st-century equivalent of an urban alleyway. As victims of Herod’s tyranny, the Holy Family become refugees; other innocents are slaughtered. If we attend carefully to these parts of the story, the specter of contemporary suffering — within our own society and worldwide — will haunt our festivities. And we are left with the disturbing suggestion that the future, for good or ill, may lie with those who are currently excluded.

For Luke, the pregnant Mary becomes a prophetess, proclaiming a new order in which the lowly will be exalted and the mighty pulled down from their thrones. At the beginning of his story, he reminds his readers of Caesar Augustus, who, like the Roman emperors who succeeded him, described himself as “God,” “Son of God,” the “Savior” and “Lord” who would bring peace to the world. Official proclamations and inscriptions throughout the empire announced “the good news” (Greek: euvaggelion) of Roman rule to the subject peoples. Luke’s readers would have noticed that the angel who proclaims “good news” to the shepherds applies all those imperial titles to a child born in a hovel.

Read the full commentary here.

Armstrong’s most recent book is The Case for God. In November 2009, she launched the Charter for Compassion, a global initiative to bring compassion back to the center of religious, moral, public and private life.

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