Last week, I laid witness to the Shrek Christmas movie. In the film, Shrek becomes increasingly frustrated as his zany friends prevent him from reading the Christmas story to his children. Imagine my surprise when Shrek revealed that the Christmas story was not in fact Christ’s birth, but a recitation of “Twas the night before Christmas.” Yes, in Hollywood the “Christmas story” is the story of Santa coming down the chimney.
Humans have an innate need to worship someone greater than themselves. In evangelical circles, we call it that “God shaped hole in your heart.” It is hard not to notice how much adults seem to love Christmas time and how the theme of so many movies this time of year revolves around the “magic of Christmas”.
People are hungry for something truly special during this time of year. With the Christian aspect of Christmas being put on the backburner, the secular celebration of Christmas seems to border between slightly silly to completely ridiculous. Saint Nicholas and his band of flying reindeer now stand-in as the de facto Christmas mascots this time of year.
I hope we all enjoy buying gifts, singing secular Christmas carols and generally partaking in the secularized American Christmas season, but I also hope we take out the time to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Despite popular belief, the season isn’t about “being with the ones you love” or sacrificing for others. The true magnitude of Christmas is simple.
After the Moon Landing, President Nixon came out stating that the landing was the most important moment in the history of man. Billy Graham came out and replied that, No, the greatest moment in the history of man is when God came to Earth to walk among man.
The True Christmas story.
Today we really don’t know the date of Jesus Christ’s birth. It is believed that the early Church didn’t much care what the date was but only about the story. The of Mary’s pregnancy with her son is probably around 4 B.C. and very unlikely to have occurred in December.
The ancient Romans celebrated a holiday called Saturnalia that was celebrated for an entire week culminating on December 25th. The holiday was a pagan festival filled with alcohol, gluttony, sex, orgy and rape with the occasional human sacrifice. It was a non-stop party for the week leading up to the 25th.
In the Fourth Century, the Church began transforming the Saturnalia holiday into a Christian tradition. Christian leaders dubbed December 25, Jesus Christ’s birthday. At first, many Christian converts continued with the established customs of botchery. Because of this, the first American Pilgrims of Massachusetts outlawed the celebration of Christmas as it had not historically been a Christian celebration. Over time, it was culturally accepted as a Christian Holiday.
Israeli Foreign Occupation.
By the time Joseph and Mary had been born, the Jewish people had been held in captivity for over 500 years. In approximately 63 B.C., the Romans became the occupying force in Israel.
However, the Romans were wiser than previous occupiers of the Jews. Rather than having Romans oversee the Jews directly, they developed a system that is in many ways similar to our system of federalism. Two separate government systems with one subject to the other. The Roman government was largely in charge of the Jews. However, a local government was put into power over the Jews that was actually one of them. This pushed the “occupation” narrative to the backburner as there was a Jew put in place as King over other Jews.
While Caesar was in charge of Rome, King Herod was put in charge of the Jews. Herod was a brutal dictator. Caesar once remarked that it was safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. Herod had previously killed a son that he feared was plotting against him. Herod also killed a wife and her entire family who he worried plotted against him.
When Herod heard that the King of the Jews was being born he was very frightened. The prophet Isaiah had predicted that a child would be born and he would “preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives.” All Jews awaited the arrival of the King of the Jews that would free and vindicate them. Herod was no doubt always on guard against this type of political enemy.
The Birth of the King.
Caesar Augustus had declared that the entire Roman empire would submit to a Census. For the Jews, this meant that Joseph must travel back to his homeland. Joseph was from Bethlehem, the “City of David.”
He probably had one of those thoughts that we all have, “why me?” at the time. Taking a trip by foot with a pregnant wife in her third trimester must have been difficult for both Mary and Joseph.
Upon arrival in Bethlehem, Joseph was probably trying to hide his embarrassment because although he and his wife knew of the immaculate conception, his friends and family were still probably calling the young Mary some very nasty names due to her pre-marital pregnancy. It is important to note that like so many great men like Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, Jesus’ birth was not ideal. In today’s America a sixteen year old girl that became pregnant out of wedlock would be encouraged to quietly abort her child. Mary did not.
I am a man and can therefore never quite understand what it is like for a woman to go through the vulnerability of a pregnancy that breaks the social norms at a young age. It couldn’t of been easy. But Mary was someone that lived it and took care of her baby no matter what.
Joseph and Mary were set to travel back to Bethlehem. They likely arrived in Bethlehem days before the actual birth of Jesus. It is a matter of dispute as to where Joseph and Mary were staying when the birth of her baby began.
Many people believe that the Inn owners turned the pregnant couple away but allowed them to stay in the stable. Many scholars believe that Joseph was likely staying with family but that the guest room was full, possibly with the elderly, so the couple stayed on the first floor of a family member’s home. Many homes actually had stables on the first floor and even more homes brought their animals inside during cold nights. Either of these explanations would explain the manger Mary used for the young Jesus.
It was on that day or night that probably occurred in March or August that Jesus was born. Mary had already been instructed that his name would be “Jesus.” It is remarkable to look back and see the faith of one sixteen year old girl throughout the gospel accounts.
Shepherds living in fields nearby were soon visited by an Angel of God. I like to think the shepherds were visited the same night as the birth but that may be romanticism taking hold. We really don’t know when the shepherds visited. It is not a stretch to believe that at this time, Mary and Joseph after a long trip, and 6 months of judgment being cast upon them and now living amongst animals, needed some sort of moral support.
The Angel that visited the shepherds was likely Gabriel the Archangel but we do not know for sure. Obviously, the sight of an angel would terrify anyone who witnessed it. That is exactly how the physician, Luke recounts the story saying “and they were terrified.” But the angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. For, today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
As a Jew living in occupation and waiting for your spiritual and political savior to come, this must have been a great comfort and I believe the shepherds would have immediately rushed into town to worship the King.
Luke writes that, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
The rest of the story.
The magi from the East likely didn’t appear till far later as they traveled from a long distance away.
Joseph and Mary were forced to flee to Egypt for a few years as Herod did end up deciding to ensure that no king would arise. Herod ordered that all male babies from the line of David be put to death. While many people may question the Christmas story, there is actually more historical accounts and eye witnesses to the life of Christ than almost all of the ancient history that we print in our history text books.
Today, we as Christians remember the wonderful and humble birth of our savior. The song Holy Night sums up who Christ as the lyrics say, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.”
In politics, there are a lot of problems that we can’t possibly solve on our own. Look at Africa, climate change, poverty, oppression, world markets, infanticide. Some issues are just out of our reach. Some issues are too big and complex with too many players for us to fix. Christians know that at the end of the day, God is going to have to sort out the mess that we have created. Until then we continue to do the best that we can. It is also true that this world is temporary and that we are all eternal beings.
The Bible says that if we believe that we are sinners, and that Christ is God and that his death acted as the sacrifice necessary to atone for our sins and reestablish communion with God the father, we will be saved and commune with him eternally. This is the great hope that we as Christians hold dear. One day we can be reunited with loved ones. One day disease and poverty will be erased. One day partisanship, evil and murder will be forgotten. Until then it is our job to be a light to the world.
Merry Christmas to all and Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace and goodwill toward men!