Among other things, the birth of Jesus is riddled with scandal. (As is his execution.) Here are 10 things a close reading of the story in Matthew and Luke will reveal:
His ancestors include a prostitute (Rahab, Joshua 2 and 6) and a woman from a forbidden ethnic group, the Moabite Ruth. Both, by the way, defy social conventions of both their origins and the people they join.
The deity-human intercourse, so common in the cultures of surrounding mythologies, involves a commoner rather than royalty or high social position.
Archangels – messengers of God – don’t appear to just anyone. And to appear to a woman, rather than a male prophet or priest, can be seen as outrageous. In fact, her encounter with Gabriel comes off much better than the one her cousin Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, has in the depths of the Holy of Holies in the Temple. (There Gabriel strikes him speechless until their own child’s birth nine months later – or 10, by the Jewish calendar.)
Mary is more independent than she’s typically depicted. Meek? I’d say militant. According to law, she should have been stoned to death but instead sings praises to, or even with, the Holy One. Think of it as a love song. And then she flees to her cousin Elizabeth for refuge. (Well, Zechariah really can’t complain or report her now, can he?)
What do we make of Joseph? He’s a surprisingly elusive character in the story. I’m among those who assume he’s much older than Mary. (A young man would have been outraged by seeming betrayal, but Joseph, no matter his pain, is shown to be even tender toward her condition when he decides to divorce quietly after the birth.) But in his own way he, too, is rejecting social norms and expectations and risks being cast out from his circles. And, in contrast to his betrothed, the angel that appears to him has no name.
Mary gives birth to more children, the siblings of Jesus. There are his James, Jude, and Simon … (“Joses” is more likely to be Jesus himself than the Joseph sometimes put forward) and, by tradition, sisters Joanna and Salome, possibly among the named women who later go to the tomb.
The stable was a much more private and comfortable place to give birth than what would have passed for an inn.
If shepherds were out with their flocks, the birth would have been in springtime, not the beginning of winter.
The star is not in the east. Rather, the three magi – or astrologers – come from the east, where they saw a heavenly light, likely a comet or bright planet, as a sign.
A much more ominous, cosmological version of the Nativity is told in Revelation 12. If you’re overloaded with the happy-happy Christmas hoopla, you might look at this as a tonic.
Whatever your faith, here’s wishing you a time of love, joy, and deep refreshment as we gather among family and friends in the shortest days of the year.
Boston Revels is an organization – maybe I should say institution – devoted to keeping community tradition alive through music, storytelling, dance, and the like. It has affiliates in nine other cities.
Here are 10 examples of its activity:
The annual Christmas production. Revels packs Harvard’s historic Sanders Theatre for 17 performances of its holiday show. Each year, there’s a new theme – Renaissance Italy, Wales, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Victorian England, Canada’s Acadians combined with Louisiana’s Cajuns, for instance – along with some crowd pleasers that can never, ever, be omitted. It’s a great way to introduce children to theater and live music and dance, but adults are all enthralled by the action. These shows sell out quickly. And one thing I value especially, there’s no mention of Santa Claus.
The CDs. Revels recordings become quite a library of world music.
George Emlen. The now retired music director of 34 years seemed to know all of his musicians by name – and something about their families, too. He was a wonderful, caring conductor, composer, pianist, organist, and arranger building on a unique sound for the company and helping shape the annual productions. Working in his chorus was a lot of fun. I remember hearing him converse in Mandarin with one of our altos after one rehearsal. And to think, he’d once earned his living as a blacksmith!
George founded the Revels Singers, a community chorus that includes a lot of people who’ve performed in the Christmas productions. (That part’s by highly competitive auditions – thank goodness we’re open to all.) We sing quite a range, from the earliest written harmony in its Eastern European roots to South African and American shape-note and Shaker to, well, recently we were immersed in Gospel music. Our repertoire spans nearly 30 languages, and we sound incredible.
Megan Henderson. Amazingly, we found a new music director who could be a reincarnation of George. As she says, We all love George.
The friendships that emerge. It’s an incredible group. Sometime I might even tell you about Mike, whom I join for half of my weekly commute. He drives the Boston traffic part.
Our gigs. Among Revels other events throughout the year are some for our chorus. Performances are always a revelation for me, music-making quite different from rehearsals. Each one has been memorable.
Our rehearsal space. We meet in the social hall of an 1895 church in Watertown, a room with bright acoustics. The adjacent sanctuary has marvelous stained glass, including five windows by the Louis Tiffany studio, and a four-manual Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ that was left untouched in the ’60s and ’70s, when many others were reworked to match a change in tonal tastes. This one’s still mellow and sweet.
Patrick Swanson. The artistic director of the operation, he developed the theatrical dimension, taking the Christmas shows from the hodge-podge of the earliest day into the sophisticated themes they now develop. It’s amazing what he and his team can do within the confines of the open Sanders stage, which was built more for lectures and maybe chamber music than for theater or dance. He has a sharp eye for detail and watches over all like a hawk.
The children’s chorus. Performing with them is a delight.
The sidewalks are buried in plowed snow, so you have to walk in the street. Gotta keep taking the ash out from the wood-fired stove. And it’s dark two-thirds of each day. But that’s not the worst. Just consider …
Slipping on ice and shoveling snow, especially at the end of the driveway where the city snowplows pack us in.
Driving in freezing rain.
Comparing the weather reports to each other and to what actually happens. Rarely does anything match.
Watching the woodpile shrink.
The house is always cold – and stiff winds make it only worse.