People often ask me how I get anything out of the Christmas story anymore since I am a progressive Christian who doesn't take the Bible literally. They assume that just because I no longer believe that things happened exactly as they are portrayed in Scripture, that just because I don't believe in a literal virgin birth, for instance, there is no truth or message or meaning or power I can experience from the stories.
But of course they are wrong - in fact, by removing the burden of literal factuality, the stories from my faith tradition have more meaning and power than ever before, including and most especially, for me anyway, the story of the birth of Jesus.
Before I go any further I should make a distinction between truth and fact. I am indebted to Jesus Seminar scholar, author, and New Testament professor Marcus Borg for sharing this distinction with me, which is that something doesn't have to be factual in order for it to be true. In other words, something doesn't have to have actually physically happened for there to be truth in the story. Think of Aesop's Fables or other stories we grew up with as children. For instance, a lion didn't necessarily have to have actually had a thorn removed from his paw by a slave in order for the truth (or moral) of the story to be true.
That said, from the very beginning of Luke's gospel we are asked to understand the story of Jesus' birth in the context of the world's principalities and "powers that be" of that time - because for Luke, one cannot fully comprehend the depth and power and meaning of the story of Jesus' birth without recognizing the world situation into which he was born - namely the brutal and bloody domination of the Roman Empire over Israel.
Thus Luke begins his tale of the birth and life of Jesus with these words, that "in those days, a decree went out from the emperor, Augustus, that all the world should be registered." Or in other words, an order was issued from the Roman emperor to register all Jews so they could be taxed, and further abused by their foreign rulers.
Scholars now say there was no such registration during the time Quirinius was governor of Syria, and that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. But whether or not it literally happened the way Luke tells it, the truth of the story is still clear - that the baby Jesus was born into a very dark and dismal world. The Romans claimed that they were bringers of divine peace and that the Emperor himself was the divine son of God - but nothing was further from the truth for Luke. So it was important for him to convey that the true Prince of Peace, the Light that broke into the darkness of the world, was not born in a palace wrapped in royal Roman garb, but in the humblest and poorest of circumstances. Very simply put, the one who came to seek and save the "least of these" did so by becoming one of them - by being born into their situation, by growing up with them, by immersing himself as an authentic part of their community.
So what can all of that mean for us 2,000 years later? The 13th century preacher and teacher Meister Eckhart said that Christmas isn't just about a one time event, but is also about the birth of Christ within each of us. In other words, Christmas is not primarily about the past - it is about the present and the future.
Thus I find it interesting that John's Gospel opens not with the story of Jesus' birth, as Matthew and Luke do, but with the story of the Light coming into the world, reminding us that we have all been given power to be the children of God, to be lights to the world. And I think that's what Eckhart was saying. John wrote that "the true light...enlightens everyone." So that whatever darkness may envelop the globe, whatever gloom may be present in our own lives - it is never strong enough to suffocate the light. It wasn't 2,000 years ago, it isn't now.
They say the smallest match can light up a room - if that's true then the smallest gesture of kindness, or act of compassion, or good deed can light up the our entire world. For instance, I am reminded of a story that ran years ago about an 11-year-old boy with cancer who lost all his hair as a result of chemotherapy. When it came time for him to return to school, he and his parents experimented with hats, wigs, and bandanas to try to conceal his baldness. They finally settled on a baseball cap, but the boy still feared he'd be teased for looking "different." With all the courage he could muster up, he went to school wearing his cap - and discovered that all of his friends had shaved their heads so they'd be just like him. I first heard that story several years ago in the fall, months before Christmas. But even then it struck me as a sort of Christmas story.
During this holiday season, may we all catch glimpses of light shining out from shadowy corners of our day-to-day existence.
Susan Ryder considers herself a progressive Christian (which means she's a liberal) and is an author on