For more than one reason, this book is an obvious sequel. The Last Week is about the end of the life of Jesus; The First Christmas is about the beginning. Together, the stories of his birth and the stories of his last week are like bookends that frame the gospel stories of his public activity, his mission and message. The stories of his birth, as we will suggest, are like overtures to the story of Jesus, just as Holy Week is its finale.
A second reason: just as Holy Week is the most sacred time of the Christian year, Christmas is the second most sacred time. Indeed, in contemporary Western culture and even for many Christians, the commemoration of Christmas exceeds the commemoration of Easter.
Because of the importance of Christmas, how we understand the stories of Jesus’s birth matters. What we think they’re about – how we hear them, read them interpret them - matters.
They are often sentimentalized. And, of course, there is emotional power in them. They touch the deepest of human yearnings: for light in the darkness, for the fulfillment of our hopes, for a different kind of world. Moreover, for many Christians, they are associated with their earliest memories of childhood. Christmas has emotional power.
But the stories of Jesus’s birth are more than sentimental. The stories of the first Christmas are both personal and political. They speak of personal and political transformation. Set in their first-century context, they are comprehensive and passionate visions of another way of seeing life and of living our lives.
They challenge the common life, the status quo, of most (all?) times and places. Even as they are tidings of comfort and joy, they are edgy and challenging. They confront “normalcy,” what we call “the normalcy of civilization” – the way most societies, most human cultures, have been (and are) organized.
When we conceived this book, we thought we would call it The First Week. Doing so would echo the title of The Last Week and signal that these books are companion volumes, “bookends.”
But our editor wisely suggested that The First Christmas would be a better title. The echo of The Last Week might be missed. Moreover, the birth stories are not about Jesus’s first week in the same way that Mark gives us a day-by-day account of Jesus’s final week. Instead, we have two chapters at the beginning of two gospels, Matthew and Luke. In each, the two chapters introduce the story of Jesus. They are, as we will suggest, parabolic overtures to the story of Jesus. And they cover more than his first week. They report his genealogy and conception, his birth and infancy, and one concludes with a story of him at age twelve.
So this book is about “the first Christmas” in the sense that it treats the stories of the first Christmas, the nativity stories of Jesus. They are richer and more challenging than is commonly imagined.
We are not concerned with the factuality of the birth stories. Though we comment on this issue and controversy in chapter 2, our concern is neither to defend their factuality nor to trash them as non-factual. Rather, we focus on their meanings: what did and do these stories mean?
Our task is twofold. The first is historical: to exposit these stories and their meanings in their first-century context. The second is contemporary: to treat their meanings for Christian understanding and commitment today.
Both tasks are historical and theological. The first-century context is not simply historical but also theological: it concerns the conflict between an imperial theology and a theology grounded in the God of Israel as known in the Bible and Jesus. Our 21 st century context is also historical and theological: what do the stories of Jesus’ birth mean in our contemporary historical context?
We think hearing their ancient and contemporary meanings matters particularly for American Christians today. To say the obvious, America is in the powerful and perilous position of being the Empire of our day. As we will see, the stories of the first Christmas are pervasively anti-imperial. In our setting, what does it mean to affirm with the Christmas stories that Jesus is the Son of God (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is the savior of the world (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is Lord (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is the way to peace on earth (and the emperor is not). The repetition risks growing tiresome.
There is a political meaning and challenge in these stories, both in their ancient setting and today. Of course, these stories are not “only” political – they are also deeply personal. They speak, and speak powerfully, about our deepest yearnings and about God’s promises and passion. They are religious in the way the Bible as a whole is religious: life with the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, is both personal and political. The personal and political meanings can be distinguished but not separated without betraying one or the other. And because the political meaning of these stories has commonly been overlooked, we highlight it in much of this book.
Doing so involves no denial of the way they also speak to our lives as individuals. They are about light in our darkness, the fulfillment of our deepest yearnings, and the birth of Christ within us. They are about us – our hopes and fears. And they are about a different kind of world. God’s dream for us is not simply peace of mind, but peace on earth.
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