Reimagining the Christmas Story: A Metanoia Moment

We are five days away from what is has come to be traditionally celebrated as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. I say what has become to be the traditional celebration because some believe the real birth of Jesus was sometime in April or some other time and that this time of year was chosen because of its proximity to the already celebrated holidays associated with solstice and various pagan rituals. This is actually a good illustration of the contrast of what cultural norms associated with this holiday have come to mean, and what perhaps they were meant to mean when the story of his birth was first written.

Jesus was born into an empire of enormous proportions. It spanned from Western Europe to the heart of Africa and possibly as many as one in four people on the planet lived under its rule. The Roman Empire was a huge institution with a matching bureaucracy. There was a sophisticated methodology in place for governmental functions like tax collection and management of the far off lands.

In the early years of the Christian movement, Christianity was just a part of a myriad of religious or other kinds of social groups. According to one of my seminary textbooks, Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, “In the ethnically, geographically, socially and culturally complex world of the Roman empire, people with similar interests banded together in voluntary associations to preserve a sense of identity. They met in homes, taverns, or club rooms, drawn mostly from the lower classes, (which constituted the vast majority of the empire), they would designate some deity or deities as their patrons and honor these gods in formal ways as protectors and helpers.” (p. 59) This in part was because this world of the Roman Empire was so often defined by domination and power. People felt a need for protection from among other things, the forces of the empire itself.

But the birth of Jesus, the way I believe it was meant to be told, was an entirely different story that was a contrast to the power of Rome and the ways of the day. I remember a professor in seminary once said, the story of the Hebrew bible in some ways was a story of our relationship to God. The story of the New Testament is a story of our relationships with each other. My textbook actually states it well when it offers that this story, the birth of Jesus, calls people to “a new mode of life in which the traditional human and religious values are overturned. Instead of retaliation in kind to those who mistreat them, they are to love their enemies, to give generously to those who beg or even steal from them, acting in love toward all other humans as they would themselves like to be treated.” (p. 26)

The story of this birth and the life of Jesus could have easily been the first widely recorded call for people to shift their consciousness about how to live in the world in peace and goodwill. This was a call of transformation. This was a call for a new framework, to work from a new paradigm. This was a call for a metamorphosis. This is a process of one form transcending a previous one. It’s akin to the expression we use when we say something has morphed into something else. The word evolved from the Greek language, as does the word “metanoia.” How does an aquatic-only tadpole become an amphibious frog? How does a creeping larva change into a winged moth or butterfly? These forms of life are so different that if we did not know otherwise we might think that it would be impossible for the end product to come from what we know as the beginning.

“Meta-noia” uses the same prefix, meta, meaning “beyond” or “outside of what was previous”—“outside the box” as we say when we want to describe a really significant new way of thinking or acting. The second part of the word, “noia,” comes from “nous” in Greek, the word for “mind.” So, “metanoia” describes transcending a previous mindset and opening into a very different worldview, a new way of perceiving the world, a new way of thinking about how to deal with the issues we face. My simple way of describing this is: transformation of thought.

Among the Gospels of Christian scripture, the translations for Metanoia have usually translated these words into having the meaning repent, in other words, change or open your mind about the gospel of Jesus and believe in it in order to achieve salvation. That is what continues to be the commonly held interpretation. But, there are others ways to interpret this word.

My dear friend the Reverend Lee Van Ham, taught a class on some aspects of the Christmas story here over the last month. Much of his words and thoughts have influenced me over the last 5 years. He, as much as my liberal Christian seminary education, taught me to have my own shift of consciousness about Jesus, both the person and his message. Let’s take his reading of Mark 1:15 in the New Testament. The original says this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Lee, in his very progressive framework paraphrases this bible quote in these words:

The time of waiting and groaning is complete; God’s rule, not just Caesar’s rule, is accessible to us all now. We need to shift out of our ways of thinking and acting shaped by the culture of the Roman Empire; we need rather to believe that good news for all is possible, and that we can live into the new paradigm. We can be already what we wish to see happen.

(paraphrasing Jesus in Mark 1:15)

No matter what our personal beliefs about the divine nature of the bible, I believe that for too long, conservative theology has held a firm grip on its interpretation. What if Mark’s meaning as my friend Lee teaches, was really that Jesus, an anti-establishment Jewish radical, was initiating his movement for progressive behavior by affirming that humans have the awesome capacity to emerge from the cocoon shaped by the paradigm of empire and its ways of thinking and being, into a world in which community, love, and hope prevail. Mark uses the word “metanoia” to press this invitation; to crack the hardened hearts of the people of the empire, people who had internalized and lived everyday through the lens of the Roman Empire’s story about their subservient status; People working to supply the privileged, struggling to live a life of subsistence. Perhaps this new story, if read differently isn’t about a relationship to Jesus or God, it is about relationships with each other and designed to unveil a worldview in which these citizens of the empire were called to be full participants and not just consumers and providers for the privileged. This was a message that was not just about shifting their thinking, but was about transforming their lives.

In his famous quote, Buckminster Fuller says it this way:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

Is it possible that the story of the birth of Jesus is such a model? Is it possible that this Jewish teacher wasn’t calling for an institutional religion, but a way of life, a change of framework, a Metanoia? This kind of transformation of thought is both a challenge and an invitation urging to us, Christian or not, to transcend the paradigm that tells us there are no real alternatives to the way things are, to a persistent and growing divide between rich and poor, to destructive global warming, to insurance company lobbying or top-down Wall Street banking power. We can choose the common good. Metanoia bring us to the point where we can come together around any pressing issue in society and create a new path and presence. And the result is not to defeat opposition, not to create a win/lose, not to react in anger to those you disagree with, and not to match the antagonism of political pundants and talk radio hate mongers, but to bring all of us involved to a new space of cooperation on the larger story, doing so out of different experiences, out of exposure to otherness that stretches our boundaries and our abilities and by living life with a new set of goals.

Too often, conflict is about negotiation or compromise where there are expectations created about giving something up. What kind of world would it be if the expectation of most conflict management processes was to create something new—something that had not even been thought of or considered before, what if our goal wasn’t to look at your way or my way, but a third way, something new, something different?

Being in management for 25 years, I have come to understand that being creative, egalitarian, spiritual, community- and justice-driven in a workplace does not absolve any of us of the responsibility for having performance measures. The difference is that “getting the job done, worker productivity, the maximization of profits” is traditionally based on our current corporate model of empire thinking designed for creating share holder equity and the deemphasizing of personal and societal wholeness. Now I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t seem as if the current financial crisis and a good portion of the solutions lead me to believe that this model is working all that effectively.

It seems to be a time in the world to create shift, or Metanoia, around this whole concept of productivity. Productivity at the expense of personhood, productivity at the expense of sustainability, productivity at the expense of the sense of what is sacred in all of us, this drive for productivity has built a capitalistic world empire, but is there a shadow side, a side that has brought us to constant international conflict, a lack of universal health care, global climate destabilization and the consistent lack of civility in our political process.

Over 40 years ago Bobby Kennedy cited another Greek thought. In his speech given upon the occasion of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he said. “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” To tame the savageness of humans and make gentle the life of this world, another Greek concept written so many years ago.

Thousands of years later, in a time of another great challenge to the world, we find wisdom in this ancient Greek concept of Metanoia; for each one of us has the ability to participate in this cycle of empire, or we all have the ability to find wisdom from the ages and reframe, recontextualize, transform or make the existing model obsolete by creating a new one.

Paul Hawken, social entrepreneur and the author of Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming is quoted as saying, “Inspiration is not garnered from litanies of what is flawed; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. Healing the wounds of the Earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party. It is not a liberal or conservative activity. It is a sacred act.”

A sacred act.

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” A message for everyone, not just the ones favored by the empire.

And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” A common baby born out among those who could not afford better.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” Even in this more traditional language, peace, not through strength, not through force, not through war, but peace through goodwill, through goodwill, through a new way of relationships. This was a radical concept, a new framework, a shift of consciousness, a metanoia moment.

As Unitarian Universalists we can separate the story from the dogma. We can find the inspiration and not be beholden to the institution. We can evolve with insight and not have to identify with empire. We all have the power to act in a way that promotes the holiness of this creation and the respect that each one of us and this planet deserves.

So at the beginning of this Christmas week, I ask us all to shift our thoughts a little. I hope that we can be open to a different reading of this story, a new way of thinking, a blossoming of possibility, another source to feed transformation.

May we find a way to look past our stories of empire. May we seek the true possibilities that the nativity of a new idea can bring. May we help each other find that third way. May there truly be a new hope that grows from the story of the birth any child in poverty. And may we tirelessly work for real peace on earth through goodwill, a novel concept and my deepest and most fervent prayer.