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The season has meaning for all, celebrators and skeptics alike

It is ironic that Christmas, the season of goodwill to all, is so often fraught with tension. Indeed, Christmas seems to make us even more conscious than usual of our differences and the things that divide us. Mindful of the atheists who complain about the Christmas tree in the town hall, and anxious not to offend people of other faiths, we nervously avoid mentioning “Christmas” too frequently during “the holidays.”

And what does it all mean? In the malls, temples of consumerism, carols alternate incongruously with jingles about Santa and reindeer. Increasingly the story of Jesus’ birth seems pushed to the margins, an unhistorical, sentimental anachronism that has little to say to our troubled world. I believe, however, that it has something crucial to tell us. But first, we have to understand what kind of narrative it is.

The Christmas story is told only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the Bible. None of the other New Testament writers seem to have heard of Jesus’ miraculous conception or the spectacular events that occurred at his birth. But Matthew and Luke were not writing factual biographies. Their Gospels were composed in the 80s, some 50 years after Jesus’ death, and would have been immediately recognized as innovative meditations upon Hebrew scripture, similar to the Midrashic commentaries that the rabbis of Palestine were developing at this time.

The rabbis did not regard revelation from God as something that had happened once in the distant past. It was a continuous process, because every time a Jew confronted the sacred text it meant something different. Instead of concentrating on the original intentions of the biblical authors, they looked for something new that would speak directly to the current needs of their community. So they felt no qualms about changing the sacred words when they wanted to make a point and regularly brought together wholly unrelated texts in a “chain” (horoz) that, in this new juxtaposition, gave them an entirely different meaning.

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Christian evangelists used similar methods, seeing the ancient biblical prophecies as cryptic references to the Messiah (Greek: Christos). Indeed, they treat Hebrew scripture almost as one of their sources for his life story. Matthew, for example, models his account of Jesus’ birth on the early life of Moses, who escaped Pharaoh’s massacre of Israelite children, just as Jesus escaped King Herod’s slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem by fleeing to Egypt, whence, like Moses, he would return to save his people.

Unconcerned about historical accuracy, therefore, Matthew and Luke tell entirely different stories. Placed at the beginning of their Gospels, the infancy narratives act as a preface, giving the reader a foretaste of how each evangelist understood Jesus’ mission. Matthew wants to show that Jesus was a messiah for Gentiles as well as for Jews, so he tells us that the Magi from the east were the first to recognize him. Luke, however, always emphasizes Jesus’ concern for the poor and marginalized, so he makes a group of shepherds (who were sometimes regarded as sinners by the pious Jewish establishment because they did not observe the purity laws) the first to hear the good news.

For the rabbis, scripture was not an arcane message from the past but a miqra, a summons to action in the present. Similarly, Matthew and Luke designed the Christmas story as a program of action for their mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles, who were attempting the difficult task of living and worshiping with people hitherto regarded as alien. Their Gospels make it a tale of inclusion: From the very beginning, Jesus broke down the barriers that divided people, so Jesus’ followers must gladly welcome outsiders into their midst.

If, therefore, we read the Christmas story as commentary, as Midrash, it becomes a miqra for our own time, and for circumstances the evangelists would recognize. We might, for example, reflect on the fact that Matthew’s Magi probably came from Iran. Or note that in our multicultural societies, we must come to terms with people who are different from ourselves and whose presence in our lives may challenge us at a profound level. Moreover, as a species, we are bound tightly to one another -- electronically, financially and politically. Unless we manage together to create a just and equitable global society, in which we treat all nations with respect and consideration, we are unlikely to have a viable world to pass on to the next generation.

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The Gospels paint a picture that is very different from the cozy stable scene on the Christmas cards. They speak of deprivation and displacement. The Messiah himself is an outsider. There is no room in the inn, so Mary has to give birth in the 1st-century equivalent of an urban alleyway. As victims of Herod’s tyranny, the Holy Family become refugees; other innocents are slaughtered. If we attend carefully to these parts of the story, the specter of contemporary suffering -- within our own society and worldwide -- will haunt our festivities. And we are left with the disturbing suggestion that the future, for good or ill, may lie with those who are currently excluded.

For Luke, the pregnant Mary becomes a prophetess, proclaiming a new order in which the lowly will be exalted and the mighty pulled down from their thrones. At the beginning of his story, he reminds his readers of Caesar Augustus, who, like the Roman emperors who succeeded him, described himself as “God,” “Son of God,” the “Savior” and “Lord” who would bring peace to the world. Official proclamations and inscriptions throughout the empire announced “the good news” (Greek: euvaggelion) of Roman rule to the subject peoples. Luke’s readers would have noticed that the angel who proclaims “good news” to the shepherds applies all those imperial titles to a child born in a hovel.

For the faithful and nonbelievers, for Christmas celebrators and skeptics, this is how to answer the question of what the season means: Religion has often been used to endorse an iniquitous status quo. But the Christmas story is a salutary reminder that faith has also encouraged radical visions for a more compassionate world. We need such a vision now.

Karen Armstrong is the author of many books on religion, most recently “The Case for God.” In November, she launched the Charter for Compassion, a global initiative to bring compassion back to the center of religious, moral, public and private life. charterforcompassion.org

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