It’s that time of year again, when we’re expected to worship the baby Jesus and thank God for sending him. I do usually go to a church carol service with friends and sing along for nostalgic reasons, while marvelling at folk’s willingness to believe the fairy story. Plus, there’s always a drink or two afterwards to look forward to.
What would Jesus have made of it? The stories of his miraculous birth have been tacked on to the beginning of two of the gospels but even in Matthew and Luke there is no indication that he was aware of them. Neither he nor his mother mention them when it looks like aspersions are being cast on his legitimacy (eg: Mark 6.3; John 8.41). You’d think one or other would have done so as sure-fire proof that he was an emissary from God. In fact, apart from the two conflicting accounts in Matthew and Luke there are no other mentions of his spectacular nativity in the Bible; Paul, writing closest to Jesus’ lifetime, doesn’t refer to it even when he’s arguing in 1 Corinthians 15.42-52 that Jesus came from Heaven.
How do we account for this? The obvious answer is that the nativity narratives are much later inventions. We know they were not included in Matthew and Luke’s shared source material because the two are significantly different (as I discuss here). However, by the time these gospels were being compiled, in the 80s and 90s, such stories had begun to circulate – then as now, people liked origin stories for their super-heroes – and two such tales were incorporated into their accounts. The birth stories are invention, heavy with symbolism and designed to show that Jesus was not illegitimate but spawned by God in a supposed fulfilment of prophecy.
While the adult Jesus was a egotist who thought he was going to the end the system in which he lived (Matthew 24.34-35) and then rule the world with his mates (Matthew 19.28), he didn’t require that his followers worship him. It’s true that, like any other cult leader, he accepted others’ adulation when it was offered, especially when it was offered by women; one anoints him with expensive perfume in John 12.13, while another Mary – they were evidently short of female names back then – fawns over him in Luke 10.41-42. However, he doesn’t make it part of his mission to demand the worship of others. When early Christians started to think of Jesus as a supernatural-being worthy of adulation, they devised statements about how marvellous he was (Colossians 1.15-20 may be one such) but worshipping him through song does not appear to have been part of their agenda.
Modern Christians’ use of hymns and songs to tell Jesus how much they love him is, then, alien to the faith as it was originally practised, and to Jesus himself. The carols that’ll be sung this Christmas have no equivalent in Jesus’ life nor in that of his earliest followers. Even if he were hanging around in Heaven somewhere, which of course he isn’t, the last thing he’d want to be subjected to would be some badly sung Victorian carols telling him what a great guy he is. He was in no doubt about that when he was alive.