The readings are from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headline is meant to keep my thinking real:
Isaiah 7:10-14 ©
The Lord spoke to Ahaz and said, ‘Ask the Lord your God for a sign for yourself coming either from the depths of Sheol or from the heights above.’ ‘No,’ Ahaz answered ‘I will not put the Lord to the test.’
Then Isaiah said:
‘Listen now, House of David:
are you not satisfied with trying the patience of men
without trying the patience of my God, too?
The Lord himself, therefore,
will give you a sign.
It is this: the maiden is with child
and will soon give birth to a son
whom she will call Immanuel,
a name which means “God-is-with-us.”’
Doubtless the child in question, as far as Isaiah knew, would be the son of a royal wife or concubine, who would ensure the future of the dynasty and rule well. To call such a child “God is with us” is an expression of trust in God’s help. It is also a declaration of Israel’s faith that God works through human beings. Here it’s a royal child, indeed, because Isaiah believed that the Davidic dynasty was a channel of God’s goodness for his people; but the whole of the Hebrew bible is witness that God works in partnership with all who know him /her, regardless of social or even moral status. Of course there is faith in miracles, but these also happen through people. God has apparently chosen not to act on his own. Yes, people pray for God’s help, but the help comes through Moses, or David or Amos or Rahab the whore, or the ravens that fed Elijah. In its core biblical faith is not supernaturalist. God is revealed and hidden in the people s/he inspires.
Christians have applied this prophecy to Jesus. This must have seemed very curious to contemporary non-believers: to say that God was with us in a Galilean carpenter/ prophet whose public life lasted only three years before he was crucified by the Romans. Yet that’s what they meant; that the eternal hidden one who had given glimpses of himself in Abraham, Moses, David and the Maccabees, had exposed his very self in Jesus Messiah.
“God is with us” expresses the best and worst of humanity. It can mean Jesus or it can mean the varous tyrants and thugs down through history who have used the concept to justify their crimes. I have no trouble in believing that God is with us in Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Moses and Mohammed, partially however, rather than completely as in Jesus. That is my faith: I will judge the presence or absence of God in any other life by the life of Jesus.
Luke 1:26-38 ©
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?’ ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’ the angel answered ‘and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God’ ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’ And the angel left her.
No, this didn’t happen. Luke is not writing factual history in the modern sense. There are no angels in history. If a camera crew had covered the birth of Jesus, it would have seen nothing at all in Bethlehem as he’s only said to be born there because of a prophecy in Micah and because it’s the city of David. The story of the census is not historical. Probably Jesus was born where he lived, in Nazareth in Galilee. But even if the camera crew had been there, it would have recorded nothing out of the ordinary, no angels, no star, no shepherds, no wise men.
So the details Luke gives are not facts. Does that mean we can disregard them? Certainly not. Luke is telling us “what really happened” in the conception and birth of Jesus. He is composing the story of how Jesus came to be as he was. His life had not appeared out of the blue. It depended on the messianic faith of his mother and father and extended family, the faith-story of his people and the hidden creative movement of God’s spirit. In fact Luke wants to tell us, as does the gospel of John, that the life of Jesus depends on the whole history of God’s creation from the beginning.
Of course, the same is true of your life and mine, no?
He composed well. I was at a typical primary school nativity yesterday. Very well rehearsed, microphones, boppy songs, with proud parents fighting each other to record it on video. But even there, as the kids told the story, it began to grip, something beyond facts captured the imagination, you could hear a catch of breath, see someone wiping away tears. Of course, the effect was momentary, but to achieve that purchase on the human heart at a distance of 2000 years is no mean achievement. Whatever material facts were known to Luke-perhaps some of Mary’s family history-he wove into a narrative that dealt with the astonishing fact of Jesus of Nazareth.
Recognising the non-historical nature of Luke’s story does not mean we can dispense with it, but rather that we should treasure every detail he presents.