10 days ago, after worship on the 4th Sunday of Advent when this sermon was presented (here is a podcast of the actual presentation), a comment was made: "maybe one year you can preach about what really happened--though maybe Christmas isn't the right time for that".
The comment has stuck with me. What might that sermon be? (And in point of fact I think that the Sunday before Christmas or the Sunday after Christmas would be a fine time for it--but not Christmas Eve.)
I think I need to start these thoughts with the statement that I do not think there is any remembered historical event in either Matthew or Luke's stories of the Nativity. I think it is all theology.
BUt the only reason I can make that statement is that the "born of a virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit" line is not vital to my understanding of Jesus as the Christ. If that was not true then I would have to find historical accuracy in order for my faith to make sense.
For me the "what really happened" sermon would be more about "why was the story told this way". Mind you for me that is often the sermonic question. PArt of that is because I find the "what really happened" line to be a fruitless trail. Because we can never know for certain, there is simply no source of information to answer the questions, we are likely going to find the answers we expect to find. And in the end the question of faith is more about meaning than event.
But the question was what really happened. And I think there are only a few things we can say with great certainty. WE can say there was in the tradition a sense that there was something different about Jesus' birth. I think there are signs that there was a hint of impropriety about the birth, that the child was born "too soon" -- and there have always been children born "too soon" relative to marriage dates. We can, I believe, say with a degree of certainty that there was a conflict between the understanding that Jesus was a descendant of David as well as a plausible tradition that he was (or that the Messiah would be) born in Bethlehem and the lived reality that he came from Nazareth (a conflict that Matthew and Luke resolve in two different ways). Other than that I think it is all theology. After all the primary point of the Gospels is not history/biography as we understand it in 2014. The point is to proclaim the Good News that the Messiah has come, that the Kingdom of God is at hand. And for Matthew and Luke that means starting with conception and birth (for Mark the story begins with Baptism, for John Jesus its the Primeval Word who was in the beginning).
SO why might Jesus have been born too soon? Maybe Joseph and Mary had a shotgun wedding? Maybe Mary had another beau on the side, one she may have preferred but a different arrangement was made? Maybe Mary was a survivor of sexual violence? All possibilities.
But for me the question is always WHY. Why did Matthew and Luke tell this story this way? How did they see God active in Jesus of Nazareth, who they knew as the Risen Christ? I think that in the Nativity stories we see the development of a different Christology, one that eventually develops into the classic formulation of wholly human and wholly divine. I think that in the absence of a fully remembered story humanity tends to fill in the details based on what they have learned/experienced about the person. [In point of fact I think much of humanity does this even where there is a clear account of an event--they just re-tell the story in a different way. Memory is a funny, and sometimes unreliable, thing.]
ANd one final thought about the sermon I have not ever preached (I have done Christmas trivia to point out how much of what we "know" about the Nativity Story comes more from Carols and Pageants than what Matthew and Luke actually tell us but that is a bit different). It is my belief that the real basis, often, behind the question is in fact a much more philosophical discussion about Christ, about how God is active in the faith story, about miracles vs science than about the actual events. Why do we make the faith claims we do? This is why the answer we come to is so often pre-determined by our philosophical viewpoint on those issues.