Does Christmas Obscure Jesus?

The Christmas season celebrates the regal myth of Jesus  his supposedly miraculous birth and royal lineage as a king of kings but that loses sight of the historical Jesus and his revolutionary message of justice for the poor and powerless, as Rev. Howard Bess reflects.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

The emergence of Jesus as a Jewish prophet of note was something that no contemporary would have predicted. After all, he lived in a world where leaders were determined by the prominence of their birth or by their effective use of violence.

Jesus possessed neither. He came from humble origins and taught nonviolence. Jesus gained a following among the poor as a reputational rabbi, meaning that he lacked a formal education and religious training. He also lived in the small town of Nazareth, nearly 100 miles north of Jerusalem, the area’s primary seat of religious and political power.

Jesus of Nazareth delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted by artist Carl Bloch.

Jesus of Nazareth delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted by artist Carl Bloch.

The earliest written record of the life of Jesus was the gospel written by an unknown author called Mark, who says nothing about a miraculous birth or about royal lineage. (The fiction of his miraculous birth to a woman with royal ties was fabricated decades later.)

Instead, Jesus represented a very small tradition within Judaism that arose occasionally from the ranks of the poor to critique and challenge the dominant religious, political, social and economic powers which dominated the society and offered little to the people.

Jesus gained his reputational status as a rabbi by telling stories and presenting aphorisms that stirred the minds of his audiences and incited their understanding. Completely committed to living the Israelite Torah (law and will of God) on earth, Jesus was devout in his faith and radical in his application of Torah to everyday life.

According to Mark’s account, Jesus began his public ministry with a great announcement: “The time has come. The reign of God has arrived.” For Jesus to make this pronouncement in remote Galilee added to the seeming absurdity of what he was setting out to do.

Not only did Jesus live and teach in a rural area far from the centers of power, there is no record in any of the four gospels that he ever entered the two major cities in his vicinity, Tiberius and Sepphoris. His heart, mind and soul were with the rural poor trapped in cycles of ignorance and desperate need.

Despite his lack of formal education and his distance from urban sophistication, Jesus was an astute observer of the religious, economic, political and social hierarchies that raped the land and terrorized the common people of his area. A careful reading of his stories and his aphorisms reveal how radical he was.

At the time, few alternatives were available to people seeking change. Roman rulers and their retainers held all the power and wiped out protesters without hesitancy. Yet, collaboration with the political and economic elites was viewed as treason amid the misery of the common people in Galilee. Any cooperation with the oppressors could set brother against brother and kinsman against kinsman.

As a rabbi of the poor, Jesus made people aware of the injustice inflicted by the rich and powerful, but he also sought to teach them a new way to set the wrong right. He taught them that the reign of God was more than a hope for the future but a way to achieve justice in the here-and-now through actions taken by faithful believers.

Mark’s gospel lays out Jesus’s path for establishing the reign of God on earth (and Matthew and Luke repeat the message). Fundamentally, Jesus redefined the meaning of what it was to be great, declaring that greatness did not belong to the rich and powerful.

“If anyone wants to be great, let him be the servant of all,” Jesus said. It was a restatement of the great command to love your neighbor.

When Jesus first laid out his simple plan to establish the reign of God on earth, he spoke to poor, disenfranchised, frustrated, angry and powerless rural peasants. He challenged them to bring Israelite society into line with the noblest ideals of Torah by creating a society based on service to others.

Yet, even two millennia later, the greatest disagreement among followers of Jesus remains his vision of this path to greatness through service to others. Today’s worldly like the royalty and rich of Jesus’s time still assert that greatness comes from wealth and power. But the servant message still echoes through the halls of history.

I am hopeful for the future because many people grasp Jesus’s message, that the reign of God can be a reality on earth. In recent years, there has been a rise in “emergent” Christian churches, marked by an interest in the historical Jesus and the practice of what he taught.

I am hopeful also because a kindred spirit has appeared at the Vatican with the election of Pope Francis, who has invoked the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, who has criticized income inequality, and who has made establishing the service model a priority.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected]

8 comments for “Does Christmas Obscure Jesus?

  1. December 11, 2013 at 09:59

    Christmas Time ist the best time in the year. I love Christmas every year more. Christmas is the time of love and family.

  2. Frank
    December 10, 2013 at 21:17

    I can’t believe in any god. When I look at this magnificent Universe it’s obvious no god or deity or mystical anything created it. How could they? It is far, far beyond the magical abilities of these frail, imaginary ‘friends in the sky’, fraught with every shortcoming of humanity, to create this amazing thing we call ‘existence’.

    But, while we eschew the fanciful stories of magic, miracles and mystery, we would do well to hear the message, for that is timeless. That is worth our effort to understand.

    I find it difficult to live in a world that cares not a whit for the least of us. And, therefore, it is left to the godless, the atheist, the agnostic, the humanist, the unbelievers and the heretics to understand the message of Jesus without any need to genuflect or abide the nonsense that has frothed around the myths.

    We should listen so that we hear the good in the words of this Jesus. We should be the merciful practitioners that sees to those of us suffering that the Kristers find so abhorent.

    Let us not be Christians but let us act as such. To me, if there is a lesson from the words of Jesus, that would be it.

    December 9, 2013 at 18:32

    This kind of article is one of the reasons I find progressive Christians so interesting. I respect that you are people of conscience, that you read the good that is in your hearts into the ancient texts, but you are seeing things in them that are just not there.

    Their world was a magical place run by invisible spirits: it was the spirits who assigned to men their lots in life, and only magic could make them change. Jesus’ unique message was that the time of magic, “my Father’s kingdom”, had arrived. That he died in agony crying “father, why have you forsaken me?” pretty much sums up his abject failure as a “prophet.”

    There was no interest in the ancient world in “social justice”, as we understand that concept today. Certain acts of charity would incur rewards from the god(s) who controlled men’s fates, and were valued for that reason alone. People didn’t even see themselves as individuals in the way we assume ourselves to be today. The notions that Americans cherish today of freedom, equality, classlessness, genuine democracy, and above all, of individuality – these have no precedent in Christian Europe. They are rather our inheritance from the tribal cultures of the eastern native Americans, which so impressed the early settlers and explorers, and which Christian missionaries worked so diligently to erase.

  4. Morton Kurzweil
    December 9, 2013 at 12:37

    The truth is that it was the Greeks, not the Jews who killed Jesus. The sublimation of evangelical apostles’ Christianity into the pantheon of Olympic mythology killed the Jewish Jesus. Where else would the idea of Cronus eating his children to prevent the overthrow of the Titans, and the rebirth and victory his son be acceptable?
    Where else would the direct intervention of divinity with humans be understood as in the “mystery” of impregnating a woman to give birth to a God?
    The demands of an autocratic religious bureaucracy required the development of a scholasticism to sustain the absolute authority of precedent and obedience of law as it was interpreted by the Olympic Gods, who more often than not failed to heed the Law in their interactions with humanity.

  5. Hillary
    December 9, 2013 at 05:50

    “The Christmas season celebrates the regal myth of Jesus”
    There are no gods, no leprechauns, fairies, unicorns or gnomes —
    Never has been,never will be.
    But now its a “regal myth of Jesus” ? — for the immature & gullible ?
    And nothing matters nothing unless we accept God and Jesus Christ. For not doing this, you will burn for an eternity in Hell …?

    • Gregory Kruse
      December 9, 2013 at 13:35

      It’s interesting to me that all the things you mention (leprechauns, etc.) are products of the imagination. Denial of them is a denial of the value of imagination. Whether the stories of Jesus are fiction or nonfiction, they are products of the imagination, and some people have imagination “cells” that need stimulation. If you don’t, you probably have other kinds of cells, but I don’t understand why you read Howard Bess and even take the time to comment.

      • Hillary
        December 9, 2013 at 13:41

        “I don’t understand why you read Howard Bess and even take the time to comment.”
        To help stop the war on Islam.
        That other destructive myth.

    • Gretchen Robinson
      December 9, 2013 at 19:25

      I am an humanist and don’t believe in god yet I read Rev. Bess because he is getting the human message across, that we must all care for one another, in a way that rightwing religious and political leaders are NOT doing. If Rev. Bess’s message gets out there, and Xians learn that the Jesus (who I don’t believe existed) they believe in was non-violent, for example, then maybe there will be fewer wars and more money for social causes. I can be anti-religious but not here, not with someone who isn’t pushing a religious agenda. I trust his voice and message to be humane.

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