If Jesus Hadn’t Been Born…Would We Have Made Him Up?

If Jesus Hadn’t Been Born…Would We Have Made Him Up?

December 10, 2017

At this point in my life and career I think I’ve heard practically every Unitarian Universalist joke that’s out there; to the point that they have become pretty wearisome. Sometimes when I’m at a social gathering and it gets out that I’m a UU minister, someone will feel they just have to tell me a UU joke that they feel is really clever. And I’m left wondering how many more times I’m going to have to act like I’m amused by something I’ve probably heard countless other times.

I do, however, appreciate a little in-house (in the UU house I mean) humor when one of our own takes a good-natured shot at the rest of us. So, I got a chuckle out of a parody that the Rev. Chris Raible—a UU minister now in long retirement—came up with many years ago of the Christmas Carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” It was his way of having a little fun with his fellow UUs; particularly at this time of year.

I give you Rev. Raible’s magnum opus God Rest Ye Unitarians:

God rest ye, Unitarians, Let nothing you dismay.
Remember there’s no evidence there was a Christmas Day
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say.
O, tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact.
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

There was no Star of Bethlehem; there was no angel song.
There could have been no wise men for the journey was too long.
The stories in the Bible are historically wrong.
O, tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact.
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

Our current Christmas customs come from Persia and from Greece
From the solstice celebrations of the ancient Middle East.
We know our so-called holiday is just a pagan feast.
O, tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact.
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

While Rev. Raible is chiding his fellow UUs for our being a little too much up in our heads at times, the irony of his little ditty is that, taken word-for-word, he is factually correct. While the larger historical record of the happenings in the Middle East in the first and second centuries of the Common Era—during the time of the Roman occupation—can be recounted with some reasonable accuracy, the actual birth, life, ministry, and death of someone who was most likely a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, and whom we now call Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus Christ, are completely obscure.

Several years ago the Public Broadcasting Company offered a series called “From Jesus to Christ.” What this series showed—with the help of some very esteemed Biblical scholars—was the in what we now call First Century Palestine there were any number of Jewish prophets who were heralding the arrival of new age of Jewish revival in the face of the Roman occupation. One such teacher and prophet gained a strong enough following, that he was—most likely—executed at the hands of Roman rulers for being a perceived threat to the Pax Romana. Following his execution his followers experienced his continuing presence. It was a resurrection of the spirit that ended up being portrayed as a bodily resurrection, and they began a movement within Judaism in his name.

In time this Jewish sect became a free standing religion of its own. A collection of stories about the life and ministry of its founder/prophet were collected so that this movement, which came to be called Christianity, could be perpetuated. In some of these stories their founder’s Jewishness was strongly emphasized, and in other stories it was not.

These stories—some of which are actually at odds with one another—eventually came to be set down as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And this Jewish messianic prophet became Jesus the Christ—the Messiah, or Savior, of the world—for those, that is, who accept and acknowledge him as such.

So while we do not know who Jesus really was, this does not mean he was made up out of thin air. He is not, as I see it, a complete invention or fabrication. What the New Testament gospels and letters give us is an interpretation—a variety of interpretations if you read them all closely enough—of a man who will always remain hidden behind a veil of history, never to be fully revealed.

Okay, that’s the “reason and fact” part of this sermon. But an additional fact to add here is that we human beings do not live by “reason and fact” alone. A life lived completely in the zone of reason and fact would be pretty one dimensional. It is because we are human beings that we also need stories, and legends, and even mythology to give ourselves some sense of greater meaning and fulfillment during the lives we’ve been given to live and in the time we’re given to live them.

This was the point, with which I concluded last Sunday’s sermon, and that the late Joseph Campbell made in yet another PBS series titled The Power of Myth. Dr. Campbell’s contention was that we human beings need certain stories and legends and myths to enrich and inform our lives in ways that go beyond reason and fact.

The Jesus stories, including the two we have about his birth, and however they came to be told and recorded, are on a deeper level about our need for saviors, or spiritual guides of one type or another. If it wasn’t one about a baby called “Jesus”, then it very likely would be some other set of stories we’d be telling to serve the same ultimate purpose.

If you blanch a little at my line about our “need for saviors and spiritual guides”, stay with me for a bit. As I also said last Sunday, we human beings are unique among the creatures of the earth in that we look beyond ourselves for some greater meaning or purpose to our earthly existence. I noted that my two dogs do not go around thinking about “why are we here?” They just go about being here, in the moment, until they are no longer here.

So it is, then, out of our innate human need for some greater meaning in our lives that we raise up our stories about those who can point us in the way of that meaning. Some of those stories remain quite localized—within a family, or a tribe, or a community, or a sect of one kind or another. Others take on a life of their own to the point that whole religions come to be built around them. This is what happened with the Jesus stories that came to be told some years after the end of his earthly life and ministry. They ended up becoming the basis of a major world religion—which I seriously doubt was the intent of their various authors.

It’s risky to try to boil the essence of those stories down to a paragraph or two, but it’s a risk I’ll run. If you take the view from 30,000 feet of the accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, as they came to be recorded in the way we now have them, what you get is that whatever greater meaning we find in our lives depends upon how far we extend our lives beyond the bounds of the self.

On some level we already know that. We create our stories and come up with our “saviors”, then, to remind us, really, of what we already know. We know we should love our neighbors as ourselves. If it takes the story of a Middle Eastern prophet from a couple of millennia ago saying just that in order to make the point—then so be it. If that “Good Samaritan” story helps make the point that our “neighbor” is anyone in need, then let that story be told. And if we need to elevate this person to some kind of divine status in order to further drive the point home—then so be that as well.

As I’ve said on other occasions, I’m with Ralph Waldo Emerson in believing that we each possess or embody a “spark of the divine” within ourselves. And if we need stories of persons (like, say, Jesus) who were so deeply in touch with their embedded divinity, that they call us to discover our own divinity as well—then by all means let those stories be told. Because we will indeed create these stories, even invent them if we have to—with all their mixture of history and legend and mythology.

I’ve got a T-shirt I ordered a few Christmases back. It says, and you might want to brace yourselves for this, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” It then lists nine “action items”, I guess you could call then in order to accomplish just that. Here they are:

*Feed the Hungry.
*Shelter the Homeless.
*Welcome Immigrants.
*Forgive Others.
*Embrace Outsiders.
*Share with Those in Need.
*Advocate for the Marginalized.
*Confront Those Abusing Power. [Hey, there you go!]
*Value Other Religions.

These are universal moral and ethical tenets. They are not the province of any one faith. But, keeping with the point I’ve been pushing this morning, if a particular story about a particular individual—especially as told at this time of year—gives us an especially pointed reminder of these universal truths, then let that story be told.

One more direction to go now: My sermon title does mention the birth of Jesus—so I perhaps I should speak to that part to the larger story.

It’s a story that is only told in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke. The first and the last of the Gospels as they came to be written—Mark and John—make no mention of it at all. The most significant observance on the Christian calendar is actually Easter since in basic Christian theology the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus are more important than his birth. But over the years it’s the birth accounts that have taken center stage. Perhaps it’s because of the various other celebrations that also come into play in this season—including ones that well pre-date the Christian era, as Chris Raible, in his playful way, reminds us.

Be all that as it may. It is a captivating story—especially the account in the Gospel of Luke. Given the context of the world-view within which the story was first told, the idea of a child born of divine and human parentage was not exactly unheard of. In the Greco-Roman world of that time the union of a god and a mortal to produce a semi-divine person was a recurring theme.

And some 500 years earlier and a few thousand miles to the East in India—the story of the birth of the Buddha involved his mother—a Queen—having a dream in which a white elephant is reconfigured to become a human being in her womb, later to be born as Siddhartha. In that setting where that story was told an elephant was a symbol of divinity.

So the story of the birth of a divine child is hardly limited to Christianity. They are each and all stories that—as Joseph Campbell would say—are ultimately rooted in our human need to reach and touch our own spark of divinity.

I cannot really improve upon the words of the late Rev. Sophia Fahs—who is considered the mother of UU religious education. It’s become part of our UU scripture, so to speak. We’ll read it at our Christmas Eve services in a two weeks—just as it will be read in any number of UU churches on that night. It’s titled “Each Night a Child is Born is a Holy Night.”

I’ll save the whole text for Christmas Eve. The idea is that the imagery in the traditional Christmas Story is a calling and a challenge to all of us to attend to the holiness of all of the children of the earth. In this sense it’s not just a pretty poem. It’s a reminder—often a quite sobering and humbling reminder–that children born under the most precarious of circumstances are worthy of having their innate divinity affirmed and attended to—that no child is unimportant or to be disregarded.

And yes, you can believe that without having to hear about shepherds and angels and magi and Mary & Joseph and a babe in a manger and sheep and cows. But sometimes we need a particular story, and a particularly fanciful and even mythical story at that, to call us to our place and to our part in the larger human story in which we all have a role to play, in this very real world that needs our love and our care and our justice seeking efforts.

Each night a child is born is a holy night. So long as this remains the case, our work for a sane, just, and peaceful world will remain before us.

Stephen Edington
December 10, 2017

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