By Seán Mullan
(From the April - June 2019 issue of VOX)
We were chatting about this magazine. Yes, it does happen! I expressed my hope that the exploration of faith issues in the magazine’s pages might move beyond the boundaries of the ’usual suspects.’ “You’d better be careful about that,” was one reply. “You’ll lose the tribe you already have.” Sticking with the ‘usual suspects’ helps keep things safe, maintaining clear boundaries.
The conversation happened around Christmas. It got me thinking about the Christmas story and how the Gospel writers might have done if they had heeded my friend’s advice. There’re a few strands in the story that might not have made it past the editor’s scissors.
There’s the pregnant teenager who claims she’s still a virgin. And her “excuse” is that God is the father of her baby – hardly a “usual suspect” for those times. Then there are the witnesses of the birth. There are shepherds, who in that culture were viewed as religiously unreliable and socially undesirable. And there are the famous “Magi,” pagans, with no connection to the long-standing religious traditions of the Jews.
Matthew and Luke should have considered more carefully the consequences of allowing these people to have a part in their stories. What effect would giving centre place to a young woman who is pregnant but not married have on the young women (and men) of the time? How would all the good church-going folk of the time feel about Luke giving first view of the new arrival to a group of men who never darkened the door of a synagogue and wouldn’t have been welcome there if they had?
And surely every Jew, who followed in the steps of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, would be mystified that Matthew zooms in on foreigners who arrive, not because they have been studying the Scriptures but because they have been studying the stars! It really is outrageous!
My VOX reader friends will say that Matthew and Luke told the story that way because that’s the way it happened. The teenager did get pregnant without sex. The shepherds, while just minding their sheep and their own business, did become the first reporters of an event that changed the world. And the strange folk from the east did turn up with even stranger gifts. If that’s the way it happened then that was the way they had to tell it. It wasn’t Luke’s or Matthew’s job to decide on boundaries; their job was to tell the story.
Ipso facto, the approach today should be the same. Those who believe this story need to be wary of defining the boundaries of how and in whom that story continues to work in our own time and culture.
If there is something going on among atheists or agnostics, among people of other denominations or religions, among people of differing sexual orientations, is it not worthwhile making some time to listen to their stories?
Did the Magi become Jews? We’re never told. Did the shepherds clean up their act? Again, no information provided. Did Mary ever convince the gossips of Nazareth that she really was a virgin? We have no idea. But their unadulterated stories have stood the test of time.
And the stories of the people who try and follow Jesus have been filled with such anomalies ever since. Saint Paul and not Saint Peter, becomes the first major theologian of the movement even though he despises Jesus, hates His followers and was feared, if not hated, by them in return.
An insignificant remote windswept island off the edge of Europe becomes the birthplace of a Jesus movement that brings Europe out of the dark ages. The slaves of the American south, listening to their masters teach them from the Bible that God intends them to be slaves, channel their pain into a music that still touches hearts and lives around the world.
Jesus was accused by His own tribe of being “in with the out crowd.” It didn’t seem to bother Him. Maybe it shouldn’t bother us either.
Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.