My father was a minister, as was my grandfather, on my mother’s side.
(What chance did I have? I did resist ministry for some time, only saying ‘Yes’ after experimenting with other pathways for some years.)
Now, with more of my life behind me than ahead, I look back to these two men and wonder, ‘How did their lives shape mine?’
In thinking about this, I am partaking in the time-honoured quest of figuring out origins.
We can’t explain ourselves by referring only to ourselves. We have to look back and beyond.
We need to locate people, causes, experiences and interactions that have formed us.
In ancient times, this quest was especially relevant to great people. How could one account for their greatness? By tracing their origins.
We find this dynamic at play in all four gospels. Each one accounts for the significance of Jesus by referring to seminal moments in his life predating his public ministry, and each gospel does so differently.
In Mark, Jesus’ baptism by John is sufficient to make sense of his ministry. Mark is quite disinterested in Jesus‘ early life.
Matthew and Luke go back further into Jesus‘ life, to his conception and birth. (Matthew does so through the lens of Joseph; Luke through the lens of Mary.)
John goes back to a point before the cosmos began, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’
These differences should not trouble us – quite the opposite. They open up different horizons, and each one has something to offer.
Locating origins is not a science. It’s a reflective and open-ended invitation, ‘Where did you come from?’
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan call the stories of Jesus’ birth parables. That’s a helpful insight.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in the Virginal Conception or not. The stories that focus on it are parables. (NB It is found in two of the four gospels. John and Mark mention Mary only when Jesus was an adult. Also, Paul knows nothing of a Virginal Conception.)
The church’s disposition has been to cherry pick these stories in order to articulate and define a binding belief.
The church has treated these stories as a means to an end, as narratives to be distilled down to their essence. Treating them as parables, however, gives us, the readers, room to move and licence to speculate, ‘Where did Jesus come from?’
Christmas is a season to contemplate origins. It’s a time to be speculative, to allow imagination free rein.
Christmas requires of us only that we create space to wonder how such a creative, non-violent, and resilient vision, ‘the kingdom of God,’ as articulated by Jesus, came into the world.
In wondering, we are drawn into believing in new ways.