Christmas is never the New Testament’s first thought. The stories of the birth of Jesus are found in only two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke. Our Christmas celebrations and songs are narrower still, mostly from Luke. Matthew’s account we slip in and around the Luke story as best we can, putting camels in our creches and wise men standing gifts in hand around the manger along with the shepherds. What this suggests is that you can tell the gospel story without Christmas, but you cannot tell the Christmas story without the cross and the empty tomb.
As one might expect, there is certain messiness in the New Testament about where to begin the story. Mark, arguably the first gospel, begins with baptism: the baptism of Jesus signals the transition between eras. Jesus, after his baptism, notes this: “The time has come,” he says (Mark 1:15). And so our earliest telling of the story begins.
John wants no beginning at all. Although he says in his prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, the logos, he intends by this, it would seem, not actually a beginning but rather a fact about what was and is always there: the Word. Where God is the Word is, the prologue tells us. Always. If there was a beginning, it’s not the beginning of the Word but when the Word became flesh (John 1:14), and perhaps not even that so much as when those who were witnesses first saw his glory (1:14).
Matthew begins with Abraham. The story that he is about to tell is the story of Israel—the story that begins in the book of Genesis with the call of Abraham. But Matthew also signals that the story has always been larger than Israel. He cites five women in his genealogy, each in her own way an outsider. The story cannot be told without telling the story of those who do not belong, and so when Matthew comes to the birth of Jesus the first to receive the news are not the theologians in Jerusalem but magi, astrologers, devotees of an ancient equivalent to today’s New Age religion.
It’s Luke who tells us about the birth, who places at the center of his telling of the story not Joseph, as does Matthew, but Mary. Mary in Luke’s account is not only the first Christian but the first theologian (Luke 2:19).
All of which is to say that where you begin a story depends on where the story ends. This is true not only in the Bible but of stories generally. If you are telling the story of Abraham Lincoln, you cannot properly tell the story of his childhood unless you know who he became and how he died. The stories we thrilled to as children about the young Abe reading by the light of the fire in a log cabin take their power from the stories of Gettysburg and the emancipation proclamation and the events of April 14 at Ford’s Theatre.
The gospel writers know this, and so in every gospel near beginning the writers hint at what is to come. Mark begins his gospel with a superscription: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Messiah, Son of God.” It’s only near the end of the story that we find out that “Son of God” is quotation from a Roman centurion whose responsibility it was to oversee crucifixions, including that of Jesus. He says on the death of Jesus, “Truly, this man was a Son of God.” The centurion means to say only that Jesus was a great man and died well; Mark, of course, is suggesting more than that. But with that reference at the beginning, the gospel writer tells us where the story is going.
John in the prologue plays on three words based on the root lambánō,“to hold, grasp.” The darkness, he says, does not “grasp” the light (katalambánō), with all that “grasp” might mean in that context. “Darkness” refers not only to Genesis 1:2, where it constitutes chaos prior to creation, but to Isaiah 45:7 where the prophet associates darkness with raʿ, “disorder, evil.” A few verses later in the prologue (11-12), John writes: “his own did not own him” (paralambánō), “but to those who do receive him he grants the right to become children of God” (lambánō). In these few words are scattered allusions to the story to come, the way that Jesus will be rejected (not owned by his own), resurrected (the darkness will not hold him), and received in faith through the power of the Spirit. And then, for good measure, should you fail to get the allusions in the prologue, John the Baptizer announces Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29).
Matthew has the story of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents. He builds the story into Jeremiah 31:15, Rachel weeping in Ramah for her children, “for they are no more.” And by citing that verse, he pushes his biblically literate readership into the next verses in Jeremiah 31 where Yahweh speaks of wiping away Rachel’s tears and calling the children back from exile. But, Matthew, ever alert to the irony of the gospel, has Jesus escaping to Egypt only to return to die, setting thereby the life and death of Jesus in the context of the history of Israel. Like a complex chord in a minor key, Matthew with a few strokes conjures up both suffering and hope, cross and resurrection.
And last, Luke has the bands of cloth that swaddle Jesus in the familiar story in chapter 2, a detail that Luke repeats so that we will get it. The bands of cloth reappear at the end of the story when Joseph of Arimathea takes down the body of Jesus from the cross and wraps it in bands of linen and lays it, now not in a manger, but in a rock-cut tomb. And when on the third day the women go to anoint the body and find the tomb empty, they run to tell the others, and Peter runs back to the tomb and finds the cloths, lying there, empty.
In each of these cases—and I have only begun to explore with you the subtleties of the gospel writers—these stories at the beginning resonate with the end. As I said earlier, in telling a story, any story, how you begin depends on where you are going with the story. You can tell the gospel story without Christmas, but you can’t tell the Christmas story without cross and resurrection.
I intend this as a caution, a double caution. There are those who would construct the biblical story from the beginning—from creation. We have lately had notable examples of this sort of theological thinking. The story in this way of thinking is a story essentially of restoration. At the beginning, all was as it should be, and then for reasons that are never adequately explained in these theologies, creation fell apart physically and morally. Like a house that has fallen into disrepair and not only the house but the family within it, creation needs to be set right.
This means, as the old dyspeptic preacher has it, that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The point of biblical religion from this point of view is to get back to where things started. The now infamous report on human sexuality submitted to the 2022 synod of the Christian Reformed Church spends a good deal of time and effort trying to define what that beginning looked like for human family relationships. The problem is that this procedure never gets one back to “the beginning” but only to the recent past, so the definition of marriage given by the committee on human sexuality looks suspiciously like a glossy photo of marriage in North America in the 50s of the previous century.
The caution—the first caution—is that you can’t build a theology that way. You can’t tell the biblical story that way. You can’t tell the story of Christmas without telling the story of the cross and the resurrection, where the cross represents the death of an old and failed dream of a kingdom of righteous people and the resurrection represents the possibilities that open up when the old dream dies.
The history of the Bible, especially the first great volume of the Bible, the Old Testament, reflects that reality. The chapters we now identify as Genesis 1-11 are late additions to the canon. They are, as it were, a preface to a preface. The first preface are the stories of the patriarchs, Genesis 12-50; the second, the preface to the preface, is Genesis 1-11. You can tell the story of Israel without Genesis 1-11, but you cannot read Genesis 1-11 without noting in it the hints of exile and empire. It’s a beginning told with full knowledge of where the story is going to end.
My second caution is that for the gospel story we both know the ending and we don’t. Is there anything plainer than that in the New Testament? The cross represents an ending. In that respect, as I have suggested, the gospels tell the story knowing where it is going. Christmas leads to the cross. The swaddled babe in Luke 2 becomes the bound body in Luke 23. But the cross is not the last word. Easter opens toward the future. The story is not over. And while we have hints of where the story is going, we do not yet know enough to be confident in our pronouncements.
All of which means that the gospel story is still being told, and it opens to the future—to possibilities that we have not yet begun to grasp. So, we must tell the Christmas story provisionally, not fully knowing what it means until we come to the end. And for that, for the openness of the story, for the way the gospel leans into the future, I am grateful on this 20th day of Advent, and waiting, waiting, waiting for more to be revealed.