Let’s talk about the original Christmas story, the one where Jesus was born. You think you recall the story quite well, until you actually dust off the old bible and read Matthew and Luke’s accounts again. There seems to be a lot missing!
I lead a bible study at the Tillsonburg Retirement Residence where my mother lives every Tuesday evening and for December we thought we would review the story and realized there are a lot of myths that have sprung up over the last 2020 years.
The World is a Stage
First myth to bust is that we are supposed to care about Jesus’ birth. Say what? The two gospels were written to prove the ancient prophecies telling the details of the Messiah’s birth and to prove by genealogy that Joseph and Mary were of the ‘house of David’. Never did Jesus ask us to celebrate his birth, he asked us to memorialize his death and resurrection. Christmas was not celebrated at all for over four centuries.
Dec. 25th did not become the date of that celebration until the Emperor Constantine who worshiped the god Mithra changed to Christianity, in 336 AD, and kept the same date but called it Christmas. They also worshiped on Sunday, so too did the Christians after that. About 20 years later, Bishop Liberious of Rome ordered the people to celebrate Dec. 25th as most of Rome celebrated the Feast of Saturn, the birth of the Sun on that same day. To attract people to change to Christianity they basically kept all the celebrations the same.
Back to the original story, Mary and Joseph have to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, but did they walk, take a bus, sleigh or donkey? Nope, well actually we may hope she thumbed a ride on a donkey, we may sing about the donkey, and put her on it in all the pictures, but frankly, it is not written.
Okay, they get to Bethlehem and Mary goes into labour, what to do? Go to the Holiday Inn? Super 8? Did they have inns like we do? Did he have relatives there? Well, he was born there so chances are yes, but we don’t know. Matthew say they went to a ‘house’; Luke says an ‘inn’, however the untranslated word used is the same used two more times in the bible and both times it means upper room. Say what? Well, homes back then, on the ground floor, had a small stable-like area, with manger [where you put the animal feed] often dug into the earth. Sometimes there was some storage, a cistern, then a small flight of stairs usually up to the family room. They did all their living and sleeping and eating etc. there. Depending on your station in life you might afford an upper room for guests. So, there was no cave although there was a stable of sorts, but not in a barn like we think, and yes Jesus was in a manger. Chances are this was at a relative’s house and it was already filled with cousins coming home for the census so they got the indoor stable.
Shepherds were guarding their flocks by night. Something they did not do in the winter as it is rainy, cold and sometimes snows, so they bring the sheep home. When Jesus was born a star did appear over Bethlehem, however if it had really been a bright low star everyone would have seen it and come to meet Jesus. The Shepherds didn’t notice it, the angels told them how to find Jesus. Now, the wise men were astrologers, being in the business of stars they would have notice a new star in the sky that didn’t move and followed it. We don’t know where they came from. Let’s say Persia, which was about 10,430 km so they didn’t arrive anytime soon. In fact it is estimated that it could have taken up to a year or more for them to get there. Wait, you are envisioning three men right? There could have been 10 or there could have been one, we only know Jesus received three gifts: frankincense, myrrh and gold. It does not say how many or give names. So, Matthew notes they came to see the child, not baby in a house, which most likely after that length of time, was the family home in Nazareth. Joseph couldn’t hang around for months without working, he needed to get home, and of course they had to show off the baby to their parents.
But you say wait… the wise men were sent to Bethlehem by the star! Sorry, no. They were guided close but went to Jerusalem to find out where he was, and the Jewish people, knowing their history stated that the prophesy said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, not that he was there. Do you think God would have led the wise men to the child so Herod could find him?
Unfortunately, the slaughter of the children under two by King Herod did happen which is why the angels told Joseph to get out of Nazareth and go to Egypt. But they were only there a year or two before the King died and the angel told them they could go back home, so Jesus did not grow up in Egypt. Working out the correct date of Jesus birth has become easier with more recent archeological finds, but is too complicated for me to explain here. You can check it out on line if you wish.
We all thought we knew His story, but all those blanks like the donkey we ‘hoped’ Mary rode, were filled in over the last 2,000 years. Listen to the beautiful hymns and songs we sing and see how they vary from what was written. Does it matter? Who knows? I hope that at nine months pregnant she rode the 157-plus km in cart full of straw or at least atop a donkey. I think a camel would have been too rough a ride though, and Jesus would have arrived early. Merry Christmas!