Christmas is an afterthought. But what an afterthought it is!
Maybe it seems crude to say that Advent and Christmas are afterthoughts in the Gospel story—especially to say it this late, with Advent eclipsed by Christmas and as we now count the days from Christmas to Epiphany. But, perhaps pointing out this overlooked reality at this moment may heighten the celebration.
I learned this in Biblical literature studies: only Luke and Matthew write birth narratives and the earliest church did not attach great significance to details of Jesus’ birth. Only in the second century did the church begin to magnify and adorn the birth of Jesus.
Even the little the Gospels tell us of Jesus’ birth is divergent. Luke and Matthew tell two different stories about the birth of Jesus. Luke follows Mary’s lineage; Matthew follow’s Joseph’s. In Luke, an angel appears to Mary; in Matthew, an angel speaks to Joseph. In Luke, shepherds bear witness to the child’s birth; in Matthew, Magi come to Bethlehem to see the child.
Regarding the birth of Jesus, his initial followers missed all that Christians a generation later meticulously tried to reconstruct, document and infuse with meaning. This is not to say that they manufactured the story, but that they relied on passed-along stories (oral tradition is a great and historically important tradition—one largely lost in the West today).
Only long after Jesus’ crucifixion, after resurrection witness, and after Pentecost, amid the dispersion of Christians across the Roman world did the idea of calendaring Jesus’ birth emerge as important in the hearts and minds of the faithful.
Eventually, Christians co-opted a holiday already significant to various “pagan” cultures and baptized it as Christmas. It doesn’t sound very holy, but that’s pretty much how it happened.
However, after a date is fixed, the idea of Jesus’ birth begins to flourish. It doesn’t take long for the imaginations of practitioners, theologians, and musicians to begin to magnify and multiply meaning. One generation adds garnish to the last. Across cultures, stories deepen, traditions broaden, liturgies blossom. The original stories are magnified and morph through riffs that ripple and refract across millennia.
Beyond the church and over time, people have adorned Christmas with explosive imagination. Imagination has given us what is now too much to take in and process in any singularly coherent framework. With only a fraction of Biblical or theologically correct touchstones, Christmas images dazzle, stories morph, traditions multiply, music pours forth. The genie is out of the bottle and no one can contain or control it. Like it or not, Christmas influence is pervasive and continuously extending.
In light of this uncontainable, irreducible reality, I laugh at those who ardently try to convince us that someone is trying to steal Christmas—to drain it of meaning. Hogwash. No one, even if they tried, could curtail the Christmas imagination.
So, however Christmas imagination has come to you—whatever its shape, whatever its feel, whatever its experiences, whatever its traditions—dare to enter into them as fully as possible. Hey, why not contribute a bit of your own imagination to the mix? It is only those who fail to imagine a little who miss the spirit and trajectory of what this season promises.
Have a merry Christmas!
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA