The Christmas Story: Fact or Fiction?

Author: Fr Chris Thomas

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas Story: Fact or Fiction?

The Christmas story is messy, says Chris Thomas, inviting us to receive true freedom. Do we really want this freedom?

American story teller John Shea once said: ‘All stories are true-and some of them actually happened’. There is a much deeper truth than mere fact and the Scriptures invite us into the truth behind the words we read. What, then, is the truth of the Christmas story?

Cocktail of Events

If you were asked about the Christmas story, you would probably make a cocktail of Matthew and Luke, with a bit of Francis of Assisi.  Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth for a census.
Shepherds, angels and a stable appear in Luke’s Gospel, but not Matthew’s. Kings and a star appear in Matthew, but not Luke. Mary plays a lead role in one and Joseph the other. We have an ox and an ass from Francis of Assisi.

Vive La Différence 

So why the differences? Did someone get it wrong? Perhaps the Gospel writers are trying to communicate something else. They are teachers of faith, not biographers of Jesus, trying to help us grow into the mystery of God and discover who Jesus is.
The question ‘did it, or didn’t it happen?’ does not really matter in these beautifully crafted theologies. A far more important question is: what does it mean?


Matthew’s Gospel is loaded with Jewish symbolism, containing many First Testament allusions.  Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, who came to liberate God’s people and fulfil the Messianic promises. Joseph, a man of dreams trying to respond to God’s will, alludes to another Joseph. Like the first Joseph, the new Joseph saves his family, taking Mary into his home and escaping to Egypt to fulfill God’s purposes.
The story of the Magi is from Numbers, Micah, Psalms, and Isaiah.  Their three symbolic gifts-gold for a King, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh to anoint a dead body-point us towards Jesus’ life. The massacre of the innocents connects Jesus to the massacre of the elder sons in Exodus.
It’s a beautifully crafted reflection on who Jesus is, who comes to set his people free.  Our challenge is to ask ourselves whether or not we really  want that freedom.


Gustav Gutierrez calls Luke’s story ‘the Gospel of the outsider’. So many outsiders appear, such as Zechariah and Elizabeth, shepherds and Anna and Mary. God is on the side of the little ones. 

Many First Testament parallels appear in the stories of Jesus’ birth, such as Zechariah and Elizabeth paralleling Abraham and Sarah, and John the Baptist appearing as the new Elijah.

Despite little evidence of a census existing around the time of Jesus’ birth, the prophet Micah has the Messiah born at Bethlehem, which means ‘house of bread’. Luke sees Jesus as becoming our bread of life. 
He is put in a manger, a symbol of the animal’s food box.  The angel visits shepherds in the fields. Perhaps Luke is saying that Jesus is God’s gift to those who have no worth in society. We shall see the face of God in brokenness and poverty.

It's A Messy Story

So what does the Christmas story mean for us? A friend once set up an empty crib during Advent, each week placing pictures inside of poverty, war, starvation and a nuclear bomb exploding. One parent’s comment summed up the complaints: ‘How do I speak to my child about baby Jesus? You’ve destroyed the Christmas story.’
Jesus was born into a real, messy world, not a fairy tale land. The ancient authors want us to know that God comes into our real, messy situations today. If we don’t understand these authors, we risk keeping Jesus in a nice crib and never letting the story unfold in us, because it’s a messy story. God’s action in freeing and challenging us is always messy.
The Christmas story invites us to discover truth, to allow the Christ Child to touch our lives and empower us to live as he lived, for love’s sake - wherever that may lead us.

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