All good storytelling begins with those kinds of questions and every author or writer, if they want to really connect with their audience, needs to wrestle with those questions. Every teenager wishing to be an adult, every person struggling with addiction, everyone filling out forms for employment insurance, everyone facing life after losing a significant life companion, everyone facing a job transition have to revisit these questions again and again.
Who are you? Where did you come from? Why are you here? Where will you go from here? It is the human quest and it is the hero’s quest. We all want to be heros, and these questions remind us of the fact that we are not as heroic as we wish, but we are all human.
The gospel writers were human too, and telling the story of where they found answers for their questions. Whether they saw themselves as heroic or as human, they clearly found the answers in Jesus of Nazareth, to the point that they all saw him as Jesus the Messiah, the Christ.
The Christmas stories point to who they saw Jesus. Matthew saw Jesus as the new Moses, planning to lead his people Israel to a new promised land despite terrible hardship. Matthew included Moses-like incidents, the transfiguration on the mountaintop where Jesus talked to God, the wilderness wandering, the massacre of infant boys, royalty that recognizes the child, a stepfather confused with the identity of his son, and the refugee journey into Egypt, land of Joseph and Moses.
Luke saw Jesus as the new Adam, connecting all humanity, Jews and Gentiles alike, yet rooted and grounded in his Jewish heritage. So we have shepherds, people that practised their trade around the world but seen as outsiders, we have prophets and prophetesses in the temple, we have infants in wombs leaping in joyful recognition of their master approaching, and a woman who ponders things deep in her heart. We have a census to show his family struggling with Roman oppression, like many people in the ancient world.
Mark started his gospel off not with Bethlehem or angels or wise men or parents or stars. He started it off with a man emerging from the Jordan River after being baptised by a well-known preacher. And from that humble beginning, with feet planted firmly in the mud beside the Jordan River, Mark shows us a man with healing and teaching skills that bewilder and encourage the people around him.
John also neglects Christmas nativity and Bethlehem beginnings. John doesn’t care about placing Jesus into a family context. John, the last of the Gospel writers to put pen to ink, goes all the way back to Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word”, he said, and the Genesis editors started with “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.
John equates Jesus with the very start of creation, the ‘once upon a time’ of the story. John is metaphorical, striving to figure out just who this character is. Jesus is the Word, the light of the world, the bread from heaven, the Lamb of God, the living water, the good shepherd, and the resurrection and the life. John piles metaphor upon metaphor in a desperate attempt to really communicate who this person is to us his listeners.
Personally, I find John to be a little too poetical and heavy handed. Enough, already, I hear you, and it’s overwhelming. And sometimes I find his metaphors being used in ways that can be cruel and judgemental. “I am the Way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”, he has Jesus say, and many contemporary Christians use that phrase to condemn their neighbors for not being holy enough or religious enough or faithful enough and so we have people who would rather be atheists than come to church and be treated as shameful lesser beings because they can’t be as poetical as John in their hearts.
But it’s good to be reminded every so often to re-examine that basic question. Who are you Jesus? Where did you come from? Where are you pointing us to next?
Jesus came out of a tradition of prophets like Jeremiah who wanted us to take care of the most vulnerable even in the midst of personal tragedy. Jeremiah, who wrote to a defeated and traumatized rag-tag group of exiles and refugees who were forced to march into slavery. Even in those dark times, in the midst of that suffering, Jeremiah said, remember who you are and whose you are. Remember not to be afraid to sing for joy in the midst of your despair, and take care of laboring women while you are slaves. Don’t afraid to be dignified followers of your God who will sustain you. Don’t be afraid to search for meaning during your worst sufferings.
Jesus knew his Jeremiah. He knew that challenging the system was his purpose, to challenge a culture of indifference, cruelty and egotistical survival where no one mattered except oneself. He knew that it would not be easy, and he knew that his chances of survival were bleak. Prophets get stoned, get ridiculed, get executed. But his word would not be silenced, his message would not be lost.
C. S. Lewis once wrote that we still struggle with who Jesus is. Either he is a madman, at the level of someone who says he is a scrambled egg, or he is something more. Whether we believe that more is on the level of a prophet, a Moses, an Adam or a God, we can all learn to stretch our story by following in the footsteps of the man from Galilee. May it be so for us all.