Recently, some clergy in Italy decided to oppose the extraordinary degree of consumerism that has become enmeshed in the celebration of Christmas; it was a bold, if not Quixotic, goal. In a homily, a Bishop gave a detailed explanation of the background of a favorite Christmas personality: Santa Claus. Santa began his career as Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Bishop of a seaside city in the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). During his lifetime, Nicholas was held in high regard because of his care for the poor in his flock, and after his death he was credited with several miraculous healings due to his intercession.
Saint Nicholas’ career took an unexpected turn in the early twentieth century when he was conscripted as the mascot for a popular carbonated beverage; the conspicuous red color of Santa’s tunic and trousers is taken from the color of the logo of the carbonated beverage’s manufacturer. Ironically, the advertising tagline for the beverage says, “It’s the real thing”; Santa, on the other hand, isn’t. Since that advertising campaign in 1931, Saint Nicholas hasn’t been quite the same.
The dissatisfactions of the Italian clergy I mentioned above indicate the value of origin stories. Origin stories explain how an important person’s character affects people in the present. Bishop Nicholas of Myra was proclaimed a Saint because of his devout life and extraordinary charity; Nicholas’ new incarnation as Santa obscures his origins.
Today’s Gospel reading contains an excerpt from Jesus’ origin story. We will continue to hear parts of Jesus’ origin story until the feast of Epiphany. The type of origin story recorded in the Gospels is called an Infancy Narrative.
Infancy Narratives were very common in the ancient world. The Infancy Narrative composed for the Emperor Caesar Augustus (mentioned in today’s Gospel) described impressive signs and portents that announced his birth. The Infancy Narrative composed for Alexander the Great went so far as to say that Alexander’s birth was announced by the appearance of Greek gods. Infancy Narratives were employed in the ancient world to augment the reputation earned by great kings or conquering military leaders.
The Infancy Narrative in Luke’s Gospel performs a function similar to other ancient Infancy Narratives. The Infancy Narratives for Roman Emperors described the Emperors as having divine origins. In a similar manner, the Gospels describe Jesus as being of Divine origin. There is, however, a glaring discontinuity between the Infancy Narratives of the Caesars and Jesus’ Infancy Narrative in Luke’s Gospel: Luke’s Gospel describes Jesus as being born to humble parents in poor circumstances.
The Gospel tells us that Mary lived in a town called Nazareth in Galilee. The residents of ancient Palestine would have realized that calling Nazareth a “town” was overly optimistic; it was barely entitled to be called a “village.” Similarly, Galilee was no claim to fame; it was a predominantly gentile province ruled by an apostate who collaborated with the Roman Empire.
Mary’s destination in today’s Gospel reading was a town in the hill country of Judea; the town was so insignificant that it wasn’t named by the Gospel author. Even Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a statement about insignificance: as Mary was the younger relative, and Elizabeth the elder, it was Mary’s duty to travel to Elizabeth. Mary made an improbable journey, in difficult circumstances, in order to satisfy a cultural obligation to show deference to one’s elders.
These above are just a few of the details of Jesus’ Infancy Narrative that intend to convey the poverty, humility, and insignificance of his background. Obviously, Jesus was not destined to be a Caesar. Rather, the Gospel wants us to know that Jesus had a unique destiny, a destiny to be the righteous descendant of David and the Servant of God who would suffer to fulfill God’s will.
Doubtless, Nicholas of Myra would be scandalized by the fact that he has become an icon of consumer culture. He might be somewhat less bothered by being identified with a season of generosity and gift-giving but, if he was given a choice, I think he would prefer to be remembered for his care for the members of his congregation.
The origin of Christmas was God’s selfless mercy poured out for the world. Nicholas of Myra was inspired to imitate Jesus, God’s mercy incarnate, by serving the poor of his city. The original meaning of Christmas is still accessible to us today. We face many challenges this Christmas, but there remains the possibility of having ‘the best Christmas ever.’ We can experience the original celebration of Christmas by imitating the originator of Christmas. This Christmas, make it your personal goal to express God’s mercy and kindness to all whom you meet. St. Nicholas would consider himself blessed to be remembered in that way.