While the majority of South Africa and the world are winding down for the year and planning their exciting holiday adventures over the Christmas period, those of us who work in churches are about to enter one of the busiest periods of the year.

As exciting and joyous as Christmas can be for clergy and lay-person alike, there is a certain level of anxiety that arises within those who are required to plan church services and events over the Advent and Christmas season. It is normal to wonder when/if sudden, new inspiration is going to appear on this well-known story that we have most-likely planned lessons and sermons on countless times already.

One of the ways in which we can find inspiration to help us prepare for the busy Christmas season is by reading valuable insights from others.

The first Christmas

This year, I decided to seek inspiration for my Christmas preparations from a book titled The First Christmas, co-written by two popular theologians and scholars, Marcus J Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

The nativity story is very familiar to those of us who have grown up in Christian circles. So familiar, in fact, that many of us have perhaps neglected to pay attention to the finer details in the story.

Two Christmas stories

For example, are we aware that there are actually two nativity stories in the bible? One in the Gospel of Luke and one in Matthew. While they share a few similarities, Luke and Matthew’s nativity stories differ greatly from each other.

Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a manger in the Gospel of Luke, but in Matthew, Jesus is born in a house. In Luke, Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth before Jesus’ birth, but in Matthew, they were living in Bethlehem. In Matthew, the Christmas story is focused predominantly on male figures, while in Luke, women such as Mary and Elizabeth get prominent roles. As the authors say,

“these examples are not meant to be a condescending comment about how little people really know about these stories. Rather, they suggest the need to read and hear these stories anew, seeking to see them in their rich distinctions.”

Hearing the nativity story year after year, it is easy to presume that it is all one, uniform story. But when we pay attention to the details of each separate story, we can determine the author’s original intention in composing their nativity story in the way that they did.

Context is key

Borg and Crossan do an excellent job in analysing and comparing the two nativity stories found in Matthew and Luke, providing valuable insight and context into the world surrounding the time of Jesus’ birth.

When we are assisted to re-read the Christmas story in its original context, we realise that the nativity story was more than a historical account of Jesus’ birth. Like much of the Gospels, the nativity story was a counter-narrative to the dominant empire in existence at the time.

As we are faced with the reality of what the Christmas story meant then to the first hearers of this story, we are better able to discern what the Christmas story could mean for us now.