Christmas is, after all, an invented date.
We don’t have any idea of the day of Jesus’ birth. And we can’t even be sure of the year. My colleague and former teacher, Jay Wilcoxen, explains the confusion in the different New Testament accounts: if Jesus appeared in that manger while Herod the Great was still alive (the Matthean version), then he couldn’t have appeared during the direct Roman rule of Judea and Samaria that came with the appointment of Quirinius as governor of Syria and his census taking (the Lukan version), because we know that “enrollment” (for tax purposes) didn’t occur until more than a decade later.
It was a later concession by the church to the empire’s observance of an annual solar occurrence that fixed the date in late December.
Bethlehem was a likely location, given what we’re told about the Davidic lineage of Jesus’ earthly dad. But I suppose even that place could be an invention.
The much more serious question is whether Christianity itself is an invented faith.
This matter of “invention” has some currency, of course, because Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich declared recently that Palestinians were an invented people, as part, one’s suspects, of putting some doubt into the claim that those invented people deserve standing as a nation-state.
The distinguished historian of the American Revolutionary period, Gordon S. Wood, provides perspective on this matter of “invention” in his latest book, “The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States.” In the conclusion to that text he argues that, even though Americans don’t normally think of themselves as a “ideologically minded people,” the character of the American Revolution was itself ideologically ladened – radically so, because it was “a fundamental shift in ideas and values” in Western history.
The American ideology, Wood proposes, was based on the revolutionary idea – grounded in universal intellectual principles – that “we the people” (as opposed to monarchial rulers) could be self-governing, through a system of constitutional democracy that promotes freedom, equality, and solidarity and is guided by a Bill of Rights.
Virtually all nations (before and after) were a people before they achieved statehood; but it was the reverse for the United States: statehood came first (Independence by virtue of the Revolution and then through the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) and only subsequently came people-hood (primarily during the first half of the 19th century).
The United States of America, in short, was an invention at its birth and early development.
The haunting question Wood raises is whether this nation, now in its later development, has abandoned its inventiveness by giving up its distinctive revolutionary character both for itself and as model and inspiration for other nations and peoples.
Once we supported democratic revolutions, even when we didn’t intervene in their occurrences. But now we have to contend with a more recent history of providing support for repressive regimes and opposing revolutionary movements that seek to advance freedom, equality, and solidarity in modes different than our own.
On the domestic front today we have numerous contemporary instances of “we the people” seemingly being unconcerned about direct violations of our founding revolutionary principles as they are inscribed in our foundational documents: the violation, for example, of First Amendment rights of free speech and peaceable assembly, the violation of the Sixth Amendment with the congressional approval of the indefinite detention of American citizens; and the distortion of the Second Amendment in order to allow the right people not only to have unregistered guns but also to conceal them within and across state lines.
And then there is what is happening in many states regarding immigrants, Arizona and Alabama being only the most grievous.
A nation gripped in fear and awash in fear mongering is anything but revolutionary and inventive; it is becoming instead the antithesis of what it presented to the world at its birth on April 19, 1775 – that shot heard around the world from a small outpost in the New World.
I want to suggest that those of us who are disciples of the Jesus – who was born sometime and somewhere in the ancient near east – might think of the faith we embrace as, yes, an invention – even a revolutionary invention with universal implications.
How strange and different is the claim that the ultimate reality of the universe itself is revealed in a newborn infant of questionable parentage in a barn with animals and animal caretakers as the attendants!
How strange and different is the claim that love is the central reality of the universe, that individual compassion and righteousness is to be built on that self-giving love, and that social justice and reconciling peace always emerge from that mutual love that IS God and is God’s gift to the created world, if only it is embraced.
How astoundingly inventive is that invention?
And how easily that invention has been and is corrupted with its antitheses, especially by those who claim to be its adherents and advocates.
Thank God for the invented time and place of Christmas, making it possible to reclaim the authentic invention.