Christmas Doesn't Belong to Christians

Hand drawn vector illustration with nativity scene. Baby jesus born in Bethlehem.
Hand drawn vector illustration with nativity scene. Baby jesus born in Bethlehem.

As we Christians draw near to the end of the Advent season and the long-anticipated Christmas holy day, I'd like to offer a word of caution and reflection to my fellow Christians: Christmas isn't ours. Sure, it's a Christian holiday, a high point in the Christian calendar, and a season where we celebrate the incarnation of God.

But at the first Christmas - that obscure birth of a baby boy on the fringes of the Roman Empire - at that first holy, incarnate moment, there weren't any Christians present. The word "Christian" wouldn't be invented for decades, and none of the characters in the story, from the holy family to the startled shepherds, would have held anything close to an orthodox "Christian" theology of incarnation or atonement or Trinity. We Christians so easily forget that Jesus, his mother and father, the shepherds, and really just about every other person in our celebrated nativity story were all Jews. They were first-century Israelites, part of what scholars call Second Temple Judaism, hence, in Luke's Gospel, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, have him circumcised, and offer a sacrifice, all in accordance with the Torah. Go back and read Mary's famous Magnificat; whatever significance it may hold for Christians, it is very much also the prayer of a Jewish peasant girl looking forward to the vindication of Israel and the fulfillment of God's promises to the Jewish people.

There are a few non-Jewish characters in the story: namely, a group of astrologer priests who show up in Matthew's Gospel. This strange troop of easterners, whom Matthew enigmatically terms "Magi" (singular magus), have been called "wise men" by generations of Christians because "Zoroastrian priest-magicians" was more than a little awkward. We know almost nothing about these travelers, including how many they were (there were three gifts, but Matthew never takes a headcount), and, given the range of the Greek word magi at the time, it's probable that they were Persian Zoroastrians, holy men who were trained to read the stars. In Matthew's sparse telling, they follow the star, pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews, and head back to their Persian homeland, apparently unconverted. Indeed, to what would they have converted? Judaism? That first Christmas was truly an interfaith event - there just weren't any Christians there.

There are other non-Christian memories of Christmas. Many Christians aren't aware of the Qur'an's celebratory recounting six centuries after the event of the birth of Jesus the Messiah ('Isa al-Masih) to the Virgin Mary. In fact, Mary is the only woman named in the Qur'an, and she is upheld there, just as in the Gospel of Luke, as a model of piety and submissive trust in the provision of God. I sometimes joke with my Catholic friends that the Blessed Virgin Mary gets more "facetime" in the Qur'an than she does in the Bible - where the Muslim scripture offers a recounting of the birth and youth of Mary that is remembered in other early Christian sources and traditions but was never included in the Bible. When the angel comes to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus in the Qur'an, he says that God "hath preferred thee above (all) the women of creation" (Q 3:42).

While many Christians probably know that Muslims consider Jesus a prophet, few Christians know that the medieval Sunni Muslim scholars had a wide-ranging debate about whether Mary herself could be considered a prophetess, given her illustrious status in the holy book. One recorded saying of the Prophet Muhammad captures this profound Muslim respect well:

Mary, the daughter of 'Imran, was the best among the women (of the world of her time) and Khadijah [the beloved first wife of the Prophet] is the best amongst the women (of this nation).

For Muslims, Mary is one of, if not the, greatest women in history. She serves as a model of faith, sincerity, and devotion. And they remember Jesus the Messiah no less reverently. Together Jesus and Mary and the Virgin Birth are even described by the Qur'an as "a sign for all peoples" (Q 21:91). While Christians may object that the Qur'an denies Jesus' divinity and Muslims refuse to worship him (it does and they do), it behooves us this Christmas season in particular to recognize the ways that Christmas is as much common ground as a point of contention between Muslims and Christians.

Moreover, many Hindus have no trouble accepting the incarnation of Jesus, they just question its exclusivity. Jesus is, for Hindus, one of the many avatars that the divine has taken, one of the many manifestations of God or the gods in all the varying cultures and contexts of history. He reflects the divine unity in diversity, the universal made particular.

For Christians, Christmas always has been a mystery: the eternal one enters history and time, God becomes somehow present in the womb of Mary, salvation history reaches its continental divide in that manger in Bethlehem. That sacred moment has generated no shortage of rich Christian reflection over the centuries, but this Christmas, I'd like to suggest that we remember our non-Christian neighbors and friends as well. Western and Eastern Christians have all along believed that in Jesus, God became a human being, but that doesn't mean that God became a Christian. The person of Jesus is a human and a historical phenomenon, and therefore all human beings, and indeed all religious traditions, have the right (and perhaps the duty) of making sense of Jesus. It's not Christians' place to police this process or to dictate how others respond. That's part of the mystery.

So as we draw near to the end of this season of Advent, as we ponder this mystery, as we give gifts like the Magi, as we sing songs like Mary and the angels, as we reflect on the old stories that still stir something in us, can we remember our neighbors too: our Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Jewish friends and co-workers, and stand together before this mystery, and be grateful?