The right wing punditry is at it again this year, stirring up a sense of victimization by claiming sensitivity to other faiths constitutes a "war on Christmas" and Christians. They've even stooped to the point of reporting an untrue story.
This hysteria is a house of cards, not just because it is bogus in a country with so much Christian hegemony, but also because the assumption that other religions threaten Christianity is false. In fact, the Christian religion grew as a vigorous hybrid. It wouldn't exist without the early eclectic collection of ideas and practices that were the diverse roots from which it grew, as complex as it is today -- and just as fractionally contested.
Christmas is an interfaith celebration. Last week, I noted that in the story the magi, we have Zoroastrian priests looking for a messiah (today, Zoroastrians are often called Parsees). The Romans hated the Persian Empire and its Zoroastrian religion so much that, according to Matthew's story, Herod, their surrogate ruler in Palestine, was willing to kill infant Jewish boys to eliminate that messiah. I love the way Rich Doty's "logos" last week captured this anti-Roman Empire story.
The writer of Luke preferred the story about shepherds. God is referred to as a shepherd in Psalm 23, and, of course, Abraham, Moses and David were shepherds. So the Christmas story of shepherds has Jewish roots, but it also has ancient Egyptian ones. The deity Osiris was referred to as a good shepherd, and his crook later became the staff carried by Christian bishops who embodied the role of Christ the good shepherd. In Luke's story, the shepherds, camped in their fields at night, were frightened out of their wits, "sore afraid," by the visitation of an angel.
Shepherds were often the adolescent, younger males in a family who could not inherit land, and they were especially vulnerable in open fields at night when wild animals prowled the shadows. Luke's story of the shepherds draws from other biblical stories of the visitation of heavenly beings to ordinary or subordinated people: immigrants, foreigners, enslaved or poor people, women, nomads, and younger siblings. It's as if the head-gear of wealth, a sense of privilege and imperial power interfere with the receptors for divine messages of justice, peace, courage and love of neighbor.
The earliest images of Jesus Christ, from catacombs in the third century, depict him like Orpheus, a shepherd with a flute and carrying a lamb over his shoulder. And later, he is often shown with twelve sheep, who are his apostles. So not only is the story of the shepherds rooted in multi-faith traditions, but it is also a dissident story about how divine blessings visit unlikely people in lowly places. Below are artist Rich Doty's logos about the shepherding dimensions of Christmas. Enjoy!