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Christmas Reflection 2018

I have always loved Christmas.  But looking back over my life, it is interesting to think about what, exactly, I have loved about it.  Like every middle-class first-world child, I suppose, when I was very young I liked all the excitement around presents – the anticipation, the tree, the night before, the excitement of the morning, the happiness of the giving but especially – of course! – the receiving!

Starting about when I was in junior high I started really appreciating the religious connections with the season, especially the midnight church service, in which I participated – in my Episcopal church – as an altar boy.  Carrying the cross, being involved with the liturgy, singing the carols, finishing in the dark, with lighted candles in the standing-room-only crowd, softly singing Silent Night.  Magical.

When I was a mid-teenager and had become a born-again Christian, I continued to enjoy all that (from the tree to the service to the gifts) but I acquired a deeper appreciation of the theology of it all and what it actually meant.   It was about the incarnation of the Son of God.  Christ loved the world so much that he became a human in order to share our humanity and, eventually, suffer death so that we might have life.   The very thought of God becoming human was breath-taking, the creator of all that is becoming a helpless infant, becoming one of us, not for his own sake but purely for ours, was a breathtaking idea, deeply profound and life transforming.

But it was at this point in my life that the center of theological focus for me shifted from Christmas to Easter, or, rather, Good Friday.   I never had the deep resonances with Easter morning that I had with Good Friday afternoon.   It was on Good Friday that the Son of God sacrificed himself for the sins of the world, and that was what ultimately mattered – not the fact that he came to be rewarded for it three days later.   Jesus’ death was the entire point of *everything*.  It was the culmination of the history of salvation going back to Adam and Eve; it was the reason for the incarnation; it was the basis of my eternal life and therefore of my existence.  Christmas continue to be nice and reverential, but the point was Good Friday.

There are many aspects of the Christian faith that I no longer admire or, even, respect.  Few of these have to do with the idea of Christmas.  Many of them do have to do with Good Friday.  I no longer think of the sacrifice of the Son of God as a plausible or even acceptable idea.  I don’t mean to be blasphemous in saying that.  I know lots of very good Christian theologians – people who are the “thinkers of the faith” who are the incredibly intelligent philosophers of this religion – who think there is simply no way to salvage the traditional ideas of atonement.

The idea that God had to subject his son to humiliation and pain by having him tortured to death for the sake of others – what kind of barbarian idea is that?   What would anyone today think if I told you that in order for me to forgive you for something you had done against me (say, lied about me; spread malicious gossip about me; stolen from me; physically abused me), in order for me to make things right between us, I had to have my son maliciously tortured and bloodily murdered?  *Then* I could forgive you.  You would think I was literally nuts. The idea that God required a bloody sacrifice of an innocent man in order to forgive others is deeply disturbing to me, now.

But that’s Good Friday.   Christmas is a different story.

Christmas is all about a gift.   God gave his son into the world to become a human.  He became one of us.  He shared our pains and miseries.  He knows what it’s like.

I’ve realized that what I really like about the Christmas season is that it really is all about giving, and it’s about giving of oneself for the sake of others.

We all can do that.  And when we do it, it is an act of grace.

I’ve thought a lot about grace over the past few years.  Grace is when you receive something that you absolutely do not deserve, a good done to you by another at some sacrifice to themself.  It’s not a reward.  It’s not based on merit.  It is an act of genuine love from one person to another, completely selfless, life-transforming.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience, but I have.  It rarely happens in a big way (though I myself have experienced it, a few times in my life, in a big way).  But it often does happen in small ways, if we look for them and appreciate them.  It happens anytime we receive an act of kindness, however small.  And it happens anytime we perform an act of kindness – not looking for a response (although that’s always nice to receive) – but doing it simply because we care for another, even a stranger, and want to do something that is pleasing and helpful to them.

Today I love Christmas because I see it as an act of grace.  I don’t really think that there is a supernatural person up in heaven who decided from eternity past to send his son into the world.  That’s the Christmas story, and for me, it is pure story.  But it is a story of grace.  A story of someone – or two someones, both God and his Son himself – acting on behalf of others, not for what they could get in return for it, but out of pure and self-less love.   I love the story, not because I think it is literally true, but because I think it is how I want to live my life.  I want to recognize moments of grace that happen to me, and as imperfectly as I do it, I want to try to be a source of grace for others.

I hope you have a lovely Christmas.  I know it’s a hard time for many people.  For many it is a seriously fraught occasion.  But hopefully it can be a time when also you can sit back and detach yourself from the hard bits – the crass materialism, the cheesiness, the greed, the family tensions, the anxieties, the abysmal loneliness, and so on and on – and reflect on what is good about it.  It is a celebration of grace.


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    jeffmd90  December 25, 2018

    That is why I enjoy this time of year. I enjoy the nativities that churches put on (even though I have to suspend my disbelief, and I know all the contradictions and conflations of Matthew and Luke – thanks Bart), I still enjoy the message. Christmas is a time of celebration, and hope. I hope your have a joyful Christmas and I look forward to what you have to say in 2019. I am thinking of putting aside any gift money I receive towards going to Greece next year to join your expedition.

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    RussKing  December 25, 2018

    Beautiful. Thank you.

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    godspell  December 25, 2018

    Beautifully put.

    I think the idea that one (divine) man died for our sins is wrong–but there is a deeper truth behind it. Jesus died, in my opinion, because he believed he was a necessary sacrifice for the Kingdom of God to come. It makes no sense to me otherwise. I’m aware it could have happened some other way, but based on the information we have, that seems most likely. He had to give himself up in order for this intervention to occur, for the sheep to no longer be tormented by the goats. And he had to do it alone. Because his disciples had to be there to help with the transition. And because he loved them, and wanted them to live.

    He had enormous doubts. It was a huge leap of faith, with horrendous consequences to himself. He was afraid of the painful death he knew was coming. But he chose to embrace it. The only cult leader I know of who chose to die in place of his followers, instead of the other way around.

    And if that isn’t an act of grace, what is? See, that really happened in some form.

    His birth happened, but that’s not something anyone chooses (except, we hope, the woman who gives birth). And we don’t know the real story there, never will. It was probably an unremarkable birth, in an unremarkable province, where many poor children were born every day (surrounded by farm animals, so that part is real).

    A woman gives herself up to suffering (perhaps death) to bring new life into the world. Jesus gave himself up to death in the belief he was doing something similar, but on a far grander scale.

    And he waited for God to tell him he’d done the right thing. That humanity–that part of it that merits redemption–would be redeemed. But who among us has ever deserved such an act? Who among us deserved Gandhi, King, or (my Irish roots betray me) James Connolly? Martyrdom is a blessed thing, because it reminds us that death is not the greatest catastrophe. Living as if you’re the only one who matters is.

    He’s still waiting.

    It’s up to all of us to prove him right.

    Merry Christmas. 😐

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    • Avatar
      ggiombetti  December 28, 2018

      Sorry the problem is this idea of a “necessary sacrifice” .

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      Poolboyjoe  January 1, 2019

      Very well articulated.

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    roybart  December 25, 2018

    Thank you. Wishing you and all of us the experience of grace and the willingness to be a conduit of grace to others.

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    Matt2h  December 25, 2018

    Good stuff.

    I think that a discussion of how ideas about atonement have evolved within the Christian tradition would make for an interesting book or blog post. Undoubtedly there must be lots of literature out there on this already, but how much of it has a historical-critical angle and is geared towards a general audience? So many Christians today just assume this sort of substitutionary atonement view as the clear and obvious meaning of passages suggesting that Christ died “for the sins of the world.” It’s assumed that that means he willingly died as a sacrifice for the redemption of people’s personal sins that stain their souls and would likely otherwise condemn them to the eternal punishment they are said to deserve. But was this always the view Christians had of atonement? Isnt that a much later development with thinkers such as Anselm? Some of the Westar scholars have suggested that there are textual misinterpretations here from the word go. That the relevant passages may mean something more like, Jesus died *because* of the sinfulness of the world. I just think that this is a rich and fascinating area to explore.

  6. Avatar
    hoshor  December 25, 2018

    Thanks Bart for sharing this; I connect with it in many ways. Examining and ultimately losing my Christian faith has caused me to reflect and ponder the many different Christmas experiences, even more than I had before. Coming from split religious family (my father was not religious) I already had a deeper understanding than many of my contemporaries. However now, I aim to try to respect what the holidays mean to everyone, even if it is pure disgust.

    Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays to everyone on the blog and please if you can, spend a moment or two thinking about the many who don’t or can’t truly enjoy them. May we all do what little we can to try improve the situations of those less fortunate.

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    abuladeen  December 25, 2018

    I find myself constantly returning to that great repository of Christian thought, Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Standing too far back at the Sermon on the Mount, a listener hears “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” “Well, obviously, it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

    As Sallie McFague says in her book Metaphorical Theology, religious language is a problem for us. Children of the Enlightenment, we struggle to find a way to accept a statement as really, completely true, but not literally true. Until we find our way back to a poetic sensibility, an appreciation of the deeply metaphorical character of religious belief, doctrines like substitutionary atonement lead us not to God’s truth, but to vicious nonsense.

    The very best of the Christmas season and the New Year to you and to all!

  8. Avatar
    Beninbuda  December 25, 2018

    A lovely posting, Bart.

    Your definition of grace reminds me of one of my favorite myths from the NT: the woman taken in adultery. Instead of receiving death, she receives the unexpected grace of forgiveness.

    Rembrandt captures the spirituality of this moment is his painting of the same name as the story. A mystical light emanating from above is shining directly upon the woman, enveloping her in this grace.

    How wonderful it would be were man able to emulate this act of grace towards those who worship, think, or act differently than he. Ah, but the Pharisee (or, as Thomas calls it: the lion) within each of us values dogma, our passions, and the literal letter of the law to overrule the dormant God particle within each of us.

    Your clearing of the inaccuracies contained in these majestic writings have brought a greater spiritual understanding to the esoteric nature of the scriptures.

    Thank you for boldly taking on this mantle. Along with accolades, I am sure it comes with abuse, public outcries, and other forms of ill- wishes towards your bodily person from the ‘faithful.’

    Benjamin

  9. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  December 25, 2018

    Enjoy your articles and daily posts. Thanks.

  10. Avatar
    blclaassen  December 25, 2018

    Very well said and comparable to my own experiences. Merry Christmas, Bart, to you and your loved ones and peace above all!

  11. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  December 25, 2018

    Merry Christmas Dr. Herman.
    Your thoughts are very much like mine.
    Especially as regards grace received.
    You are not doing good to each other, yes to you!

  12. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 25, 2018

    To observe this Christmas day, I re-read your Newsweek feature article of December 17, 2012. As you end your books, you conclude the Christmas article on a positive note, just like this post today. As a sometimes writer, I’m curious: How many days did it take you to complete that writing? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2018

      I probably cranked it out in two hours, I’d suppose….

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  13. Avatar
    mikezamjara  December 25, 2018

    merry christmas Dr Ehrman. Just a question. I know that Jesus wasn’t born on december 25th. Do scholars know a better date that could be more probably the date of Jesus’ birth?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2018

      No, we have no idea (even if people tell you they *do*!).

  14. Avatar
    Matt2239  December 25, 2018

    Of course it doesn’t all make sense. Have you ever tried explaining yourself to a cockroach? Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

  15. Avatar
    Meiguoji  December 25, 2018

    Bart – Thank you for this lovely heartfelt message. You are indeed a a great Minister to everyone! I regard this blog as my church.. and like so many, I hunger to know more! Wishing you and yours Peace, Health and Joy this season and always.

  16. Avatar
    RRomanchek  December 25, 2018

    My early life mirrors yours, though in the Roman Catholic tradition. I was even diocese altar boy of the year in 1965 (I think it was because I had a western and not southern accent when reciting Latin prayer responses.). I also became more serious about my beliefs during high school, but was never attracted to the “born again” Evangelical movement. Too Protestant, I suspect. Then I picked up Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian” while browsing the college bookstore. Well, that made me a sceptic. After casual investigation of the Bible while a high school history teacher, I discovered you, Professor Ehrman. Eventually joined your blog, and have learned a lot from you and your many smart subscribers. Thanks, and Merry Christmas.

  17. Avatar
    tcasto  December 25, 2018

    As always you manage to capture my musings and express them coherently. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Avatar
    Judith  December 25, 2018

    This is truly beautiful.

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  19. Avatar
    bmay  December 26, 2018

    God bless us each and everyone. Merry Christmas professor Ehrman. For me, the real lesson has always been about love and forgiveness. What more do you need to know?

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  20. Lev
    Lev  December 26, 2018

    I agree that crude presentations of Penal Substitution Theory of atonement have huge problems – on the same magnitude of the idea of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son and *that* commandment in Exodus 22:29(!)

    I think the classic (original?) atonement theory, Christus Victor, makes much more sense – especially as Jesus died at Passover where the Jews celebrate their divine liberation, rather than the Day of Atonement where they cast their sins upon an innocent scapegoat and cast it out of the Holy city. In John’s gospel John the Baptist identified Jesus as the lamb of God, rather than atonement Goat, who takes away the sins of the world (Jn1:29)

    The gospels record Jesus suffering on the cross. Peter and Paul claim he “bore our sins” (1Pet2:24) or was “made to be sin” (2Cor5:21). The three hours of darkness, as recorded in the synoptics, seem to signify this moment where the totality of sin and evil was gathered and expended to destroy the Christ – as if Jesus was some kind of cosmic magnet – and were seemingly victorious at the cry of dereliction. Yet God chose to forgive all those sins in order to rescue his Son from the grave by not only raising him to life, but also exalting and glorifying him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

    So instead of God appearing as some kind of tyrannical monster dishing out punishment to those who don’t deserve it, God set his Son up as some kind of cosmic lightning rod that drew sin out of the world, like drawing poison out of a body, in order to smash to pieces the system of cosmic penal justice, defeat the powers of sin and death and reconcile God and humanity once and for all by raising his Son back to life.

    In this depiction, God is seen as a devoted and loving father who not only rescues his beloved son from the grave but also rescues, according to John, “the whole world.” (1John2:2) Regardless of whether you believe these events are historical, this seems to me to be what the authors of the New Testament taught.

    • Avatar
      turbopro  December 27, 2018

      If I may please: your understanding may be the case, all well and true. But, may I ask: what is the point in all of this?

      Could the omni*-god “smash to pieces the system of cosmic penal justice, defeat the powers of sin and death and reconcile God and humanity once and for all by” simply forgiving all of humanity?

      Happy holidays.

      2
      • Lev
        Lev  December 28, 2018

        I suppose the point of this was to reconcile God and humanity. Under the Christus Victor model, this was accomplished in a two-stage bait and switch method:

        1. Bait: Drawing the sins of humanity to the cross where Christ acted as a cosmic lightning rod. The darkness of evil gathered and the sins of humanity, in a parallel of the fall, separated the Son of God from God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

        2. Switch: In an act of supreme love and grace, God forgave the sins of humanity in order to raise his Son back to life and reconcile himself with humanity. This was proof that God had forgiven sin not out of a sense of satisfaction that a penalty had been paid (penal substitution) – for that to be true Christ would still be in the grave – but instead out of love for his Son and humanity.

        You seem to ask why Christ had to die, instead of God simply bypassing this and forgiving sins at the click of his fingers? I’m unsure if the NT is explicit over that, but there’s a lot of references to how the blood of Jesus needed to be shed in order for sins to be forgiven and parallels the blood of the Passover lambs in Exodus:

        Mt26:28 “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”
        Jn6:54 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”
        Rm3:24-25 “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood”
        Col1:20 “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
        1Ptr1:18-19 “You .. were ransomed … not with perishable things … but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.”
        1Jn1:7 “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin”
        Rev5:9 “for you [Jesus] were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation”
        Rev7:14 “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”

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          chixter  January 21, 2019

          Yes total victory for humanity….at least the portion of humanity that *believes*. Anyone else, if they are unfortunate enough to be born in a different place or time, or just adhering to the faith they were born into and raised, that part of humanity is S.O.L

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