Of all the nerve!” fumed a certain member of my congregation as she stormed into my office. She was holding a Santa ornament that the (newly formed) decorating committee at my church had included as part of the Christmas decorations. “Pastor, did you see what they put out there for our decorations?!” I did notice the Santa figurine among the regular ornaments on my way in, but paid it little attention because I had other things on my mind at the time. I knew where this conversation was going. She was part of a group who was crusading to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Having Santa in our church, she felt, might give people mixed messages. Ironically enough, it was only the Santa ornament that she took issue with; the other items usually associated with Christmas – the trees, the brightly colored gifts, the shiny baubles, the yule logs, the stockings, and other random decorations around the church that also had absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or the gospel story – she had no problems with. Just Santa.
But I was aware that things were more complicated than just whether or not to include Santa in the church’s Christmas decorations. See, I also knew that she had a personal long-standing grievance with the head of the decorating committee. On top of that, there was separate group within the church congregation that that was wondering if we should even celebrate Christmas in the first place – it’s not a biblical feast from the Old Testament (which would have been the feasts celebrated by the early church), and the way that most North American Christians celebrate Christmas, other than the religious ritual of attending special Christmas church services, is virtually identical to how non-Christians celebrate. The latter group usually would respond to the former group’s impassioned pleas for “keeping Christ in Christmas” by asking if Christ was even in Christmas in the first place.
Steeped in so much tradition and history, the celebration of Christmas and its iconic representations are often taken for granted by most of us. Yet, I somehow knew that to properly engage in this conversation, we would be forced to further explore, and even question, how we observe Christmas and how that compares to the biblical presentation of Jesus’ birth story.
The first time Christmas was celebrated by the Christian church was not until the fourth century (the first recorded being in 336 AD), and even then, there was debate as to the actual date of celebration. The Western Church used December 25, while churches in the East instead chose January 6. Before this point, Christian apologists (those who argue for the Christian faith) actually mocked the pagans for celebrating birthdays for their gods.
So why begin celebrating, and why on that day (which, being recognized as the winter solstice, was actually the celebrated birthday of various sun gods worshipped in the Roman Empire)? It was likely that it was as an alternative to other festivals happening at the same time, much like some churches have ‘harvest festivals’ to replace Halloween today. So, if December 25 is not really Jesus’ birthday, why celebrate it? The conclusion I have come to is this: I do not celebrate Christmas as when Jesus was born, but as a reminder of the fact that Jesus was born, and how significant that fact actually is.
One might ask then what this has to do with Bible verses that are taken out of context, for that is what the column “Content in Context” is usually all about. Well, for that, since Christmas is something that is on a lot of our minds at least in the earlier part of the winter, and we may come across similar arguments to those I mentioned above, it might be good to address this, as well as compare how the Bible depicts the story of Jesus’ birth to how we might see it depicted throughout the Christmas season and in many church nativity plays. For the purposes of this article, I will break the story into scenes, and compare the “commonly portrayed” to what likely happened, according to the Bible.
While most Nativity presentations begin with the journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth (a distance of about 110 km or 70 miles) with a very pregnant Mary being led by her loving husband Joseph, the occasional telling also includes a courtship narrative – one of the better ones, as far as historical accuracy goes, would be “The Nativity Story”, a 2006 film directed by Catherine Hardwicke. What almost all of these renditions have in common during the journey, including those given in churches, is that it is a lonely one, with only this young couple making the trip, except for a few scenes where they are joined by other travellers. In reality, there were likely many more travellers on the road because Luke’s gospel records the reasoning behind the journey as being to report for a tax census and also the fact that the town was crowded already by the time they got there.
NO ROOM IN THE INN…
As the nativity pantomimes go, the next scene is usually with an innkeeper telling the young couple that there is no room in his inn, but that they may sleep in the barn, which is where Jesus is born into the world. While it could have been possible that they may have needed to rely on a public hostel, Luke’s gospel (from whom this part of the account comes from) neither mentions the search for an inn, an innkeeper or a barn. The word that is translated “inn” in several English translations (kataluma), while including public hostels (Bethlehem was a small town, so was unlikely to have more than one), actually refers to a guest room or lodging place, which could have also been in a private home (as the same word is used for the “guest room” mentioned in Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14).
What is more likely is that the houses of Joseph’s family and relatives were all full of other members of his family. And as for the “barn” or “stable” that we often picture as the scene for Jesus’ birth, early church tradition suggests it was actually a grotto – a shallow cave located just outside of Bethlehem. However, even this assumes beyond the text itself (which also doesn’t mention a cave). While it could have been a cave, it also could have been the lower floor of a house where animals were kept during the night (so not among the human living quarters). Recent archaeological discoveries throughout Israel show that this is the way many lived – the animals on the lowest floor, then the people on the floors above. Either which way, whether it was in the cave as early tradition suggests or in the basement of Joseph’s ancestral family home, it was not an ideal situation to enter the world.
WE THREE KINGS…
After being visited by shepherds, who according to Luke’s gospel then go out as the first evangelists of the gospel message (a detail often left out of our nativity stories), our nativity pantomimes usually then portray three kings visiting and presenting gifts to the child; however, the biblical record (this time found in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel) neither mentions the number of these visitors, nor that they were kings. Their number and royal rank was added by later tradition, which was based on the gifts given (gold, frankincense and myrrh were three items, and each of these were highly valuable and individually could have been considered a kingly gift). This group of foreigners were called ‘Magi’, which while some assume this was a type of king or simply wise men, this was actually the title given to the Persian intellectual and religious caste. So they were more priests, teachers, astronomers, and scientists than they were kings. Also, given that they were from the East, they would have come from the Parthian Empire, a rival to the Roman Empire in which Judea stood. Given the tricky political situation between the two empires, and also the dangers of travel (bandits and exposure to bad weather), these travellers most likely travelled in a larger caravan, which would have made their numbers larger than the three of church tradition (which might also offer further reason for the unrest of Herod and the rest of Jerusalem by their visit in Matthew 2:3).
Additionally, if we were to attempt to harmonize the gospels, it’s also unlikely that they arrived on the night when Jesus was actually born. On the one hand, if we take into account Herod’s brutal response in Matthew 2:16 as being a true response to their astronomical calculations, we do know that Jesus was less than 2 years old, but not a newborn, as the Magi spoke of the star as being around for enough time to guide them from where they came from (which, if they came from Babylon, the closest Parthian city of any significance, would be about 1200 kilometers, or about 740 miles away – a journey that would have taken weeks). Then if we were to also include Jesus’ presentation at the temple (another detail often omitted from the typical Nativity play, but which featured prominently in Luke’s gospel), this could not have happened if Joseph had fled with Mary and Jesus on the night when Jesus was born.
In addition, it states in Matthew 2:11 that the Magi found the ‘child’ Jesus (the word used was not the word for a newborn baby, but for a young child) in a house (not in a cave or stable), which would indicate that at least some time has passed. However, I think that we include the visit of the Magi with our nativity scenes and don’t include the other parts of the story partly for tradition’s sake and partly for convenience sake.
THE MISSING SCENES…
There are also several scenes that we find in the gospels that are usually missed in our Nativity plays. For instance, if we read in Luke 2:21-38 (which I alluded to above), we find Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to be presented in the temple, along with the sacrifice of two doves (the sacrifice of a poor family). This action is to obey a certain Old Testament law, found in Leviticus 12, which basically says that a son is to be presented at the temple when he is 40 days old. It’s also in this passage when we find the words spoken by Simeon and Anna, two elderly prophets who sought to bless the child. Admittedly, this is not usually included in our Nativity plays, mainly because of tradition and convenience; however, because of this scene, we have further proof that the Magi most likely did not arrive on the night when Jesus was born, but more likely between this time (when Jesus was 40 days old) and when he was 2 years of age (according to the timing of the Star in Matthew’s gospel).
What is also often missed is the connection between John and Jesus, especially as it is told in Luke’s gospel, which intertwines the birth stories of both of these figures together. For just as it is scandalous to imagine an unmarried virgin becoming pregnant, the theme of elderly barren couples suddenly being given the gift of a child is also a common theme throughout the Old Testament scriptures, and, if we were truly being faithful to the text, it is difficult to divorce the story of Jesus from his relative, John, even if this is another element that is often forgotten (at least when we are thinking of the nativity story). This John would later grow up to become the preacher, John the Baptist, who would baptize Jesus in the Jordan River, as all four gospels tell us.
Related to this, and perhaps even because of it, we can also often forget the realities of what was happening at the time. As I’ve usually seen it portrayed, we usually present the Nativity story in churches as a quaint and peaceful story; meanwhile, the brutality of the Roman occupation and of Herod the Great are usually downplayed, not to mention the revolutionary spirit of the time, and even the revolutionary nature of the gospel itself: a new king has been born, and he would usher in a kingdom that will overthrow the kingdoms of the corrupt. It all starts here, in the seeming shame of the narrative itself.
What I mean by the shame of the story is that there are certain elements of the story that would appear shameful if we looked at them in isolation. This king, instead of being brought up in palaces and great luxury would bear the social stigma of being an illegitimate child to an unwed peasant girl, born among animals, with his first bed being a common feeding trough for those same animals. The shepherds, who would be the first evangelists for this king, were also known as the least socially acceptable within society. They stank of sheep and spent much of their time isolated from other people. As for the Magi, they were not only foreigners but also potential enemies of the Roman overlords, and their news of this new king that they came to seek was not generally welcome in Jerusalem. Upon hearing of new competition to his reign, the current king (Herod the Great, who was known for his paranoia and cruelty, as well as his extensive building projects) would order the death of all boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem. Admittedly, because Bethlehem was a small village at the time, this probably would not have been many more than 20 children, which is likely why other ancient historians don’t mention it, but this brutal action was characteristic of Herod. He once even ordered the death of his wife and his own sons because of a rumor that they were planning to replace him. This would then cause Jesus and his parents to flee to Egypt as refugees, where they would remain until after the death of Herod, when they would return to Nazareth.
CONCLUSION: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STORY
As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, I don’t celebrate Christmas as the time when Jesus was born, but as a reminder of the significance that he was born, and all that comes with it. We’ve also looked at various aspects of the Nativity, comparing how our traditions portray what might have happened versus what the text of the Bible actually tells us. Although there are some differences, the fact remains that there is still Christmas, despite the question of what exactly it is we are celebrating. Jesus Christ was born, he lived, and he later died a criminal’s death. Then his tomb was found empty a few days later. Those are the facts that are verified throughout history. The question we are left with is why. And it is the answer to that why that tells us the purpose of Jesus being born as something worthy of celebration in the first place. For that, there are several reasons that come to mind.
1. God’s Longing for Restored Relationship
God revealed himself to us in the Bible as one who longs to be in relationship with his Creation, especially his human creations. Think of it like a child looking delightedly into a fish tank, but the fish all swim away and hide. That child really wants to show the fish how much he cares for them and how he wants to be friends with them. But to the fish, the child is a scary creature who might wish harm upon them. What better way for the child to show what he’s really like than to become a fish himself and live among them? So one way to think of it is that God wants to be in relationship with us, but humans (as a whole) would rather avoid or hide from such a scary prospect of this almighty being who is watching everything we are doing. So, to show us his intentions are for our good and for a restored relationship, God becomes one of us, to live among us and to teach us of himself and of his ways.
2. The Fulfillment of Promises
Another reason that comes to mind is because it is the fulfillment of the promises given by God in the Old Testament, though possibly not in the ways that they would have understood it originally. Isaiah 9:6-7, for instance, talks about a child being born who is described as Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace – all titles which, if you actually think about from the mind of a monotheistic Jew (because the Jewish people and Christians after them only recognize one God), the only explanation must be that God himself would be born as a child, and this child would sit on the throne of David (historical Israel’s most famous king) and reign forever and ever. This, of course, is not the only promise being kept here. Even from the very beginning, there was the promise that things would be restored one day, and all will be forgiven. Jesus being born in earthly form was the beginning of the fulfillment of that promise.
The central problem that has been there from the start is a problem of broken relationships, the central one being between God the Creator and his Creation (especially humans, who were the original perpetrators who chose to break that relationship). As such, the only way for things to be mended is for that foundational relationship to be fixed. Logic dictates that the one who broke the relationship should be the one to fix it, so it should be humanity that is responsible. But as humans, we are frail and weak, and there is also God’s holiness to contend with, so humans are unable to bridge the gap. The only one who is able to repair the relationship is God himself. So by being born as the man Jesus, God, who is the only one able to mend that which has become broken, can now also act as representative for humanity. And we who belong to Jesus, those who are known by his name as Christians, can live with the assurance that this foundational relationship has been fixed, and that our other relationships can now begin to be repaired because of this, and we’ve been given the privilege to point others toward this hope so that they too can be restored.
3. God’s Affirmation of the Created World
But there’s another level to this, which is probably not thought of commonly in Christian circles, or at least not in many conservative Evangelical circles where many of us find ourselves interacting. By being born, and by living as a fully enfleshed human being, Jesus was affirming the gift that is life itself and also the goodness and importance of the Created world. Yes, it is fallen, as we are. Genesis 3:17 tells us the ground was cursed because of the choice of humanity to reject God, and Romans 8:19-23 tells us that Creation itself groans in frustration because of the curse. But we tend to forget that when God first created everything, he called it good. In fact, when everything was complete, he said it was very good. And later, when he rose from the dead, it was into a physical body. And then when he returns in glory, the Bible tells us that we will also be made to be alive, and that Heaven will come to Earth and the curse will finally be removed. What is the point of any of this, of any physical existence, if the created world was thought of as simply a prison for immortal souls who are just waiting to “get into Heaven”? By being born, Jesus is giving us a reminder that the Created world, while currently imperfect and groaning in agony and frustration because of the curse, is fundamentally good, and that by his coming, the salvation he brings affirms life, and not merely life after death.
4. Good News for Everyone!
And finally, there is also the declaration given by the choir of angels in Luke 2:10; by Jesus being born, God is glorified, and now there can finally be “peace” for all who belong to him (which will eventually be peace in all the world, which was bought through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross). This is good news, and good news is meant to be proclaimed, so that all people, and all of creation can join with that heavenly chorus and sing out, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!”