What would Jesus do is one of those contemporary Christian phrases that has made its way into mainstream pop culture. The idea behind is it to get the believer to act more like Jesus. This question assumes we know him enough to behave as he would. At least it means we can find out what he would do in a given circumstance. One such scenario I would like to explore is what Jesus would do on the 25th December.
Christmas is one of the few global holidays that has a more tenuous relationship with its reason for being. It is meant to be a celebration of Jesus’ birth. The significance of his birth, the reason why we celebrate it, often gets lost between the presents and the carols, among other cultural idiosyncrasies of the festivities. To be sure, most of our cultural traditions surrounding Christmas, have no scriptural basis whatsoever. The origins of many Western traditions can be traced to pagan sources. Believers also get caught up in the romance of the season and we perpetuate caricatures of the season. For instance most believers are certain that Jesus was born in a smelly animal barn because they could not find room in the inns of Bethlehem. Dr Kenneth E. Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, who has spent decades living and teaching in the Middle East, says that this image is textually and culturally wrong.
Furthermore, the idea of a first Christmas is quite curious. Jesus’ birth was not particularly celebrated for the first couple of centuries after Christ. Some of the Church Fathers were against celebrating birthdays all together. They were seen as a more pagan activity and also all birthdays in the scriptures did not end well. To speak of Jesus’ birth as the first Christmas is strictly speaking anachronistic.
Jesus himself never specified that anyone should celebrate his birthday let alone on 25th December. It is really just an arbitrary date of birth. No one really knows exactly when Jesus was born. Some even contend that this date was taken from pagan festivities. What would have Jesus done at that time of the year?
Even as Christians we forget the Jewishness of Jesus. The Gospel’s portray him as intensely devout Jew of his time. Around that time period, as modern Jews do today, he would have been celebrating Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication.
At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. – John 10:22-23 ESV
Jesus attended several Jewish festivals and his Jewish followers continued attending these festivals after his resurrection. Modern scholarship studies him firmly in the context of first century, Second Temple Judaism. When we recognize our spiritual heritage it is no surprising that the Gospel’s present Jesus birth in the way they do.
Only two of the Gospels have a birth narrative. All of the Gospels have a baptism account. We must remember that they are ancient authors, not modern biographers. When you read through the New Testament you find the birth of Jesus is referenced but never elaborated apart from the two Gospel records we have. The baptism of John is central to the Gospel narrative but the birth narratives are not (Acts 1:20-22.) It serves as the official God-ordained platform through which the prophesied Messiah is introduced to Israel.
Even though the birth and infancy of narratives of Matthew and Luke differ significantly they do have one thing in common. When we read it in its scriptural context we notice both accounts are written to demonstrate how prophecy was fulfilled. Both accounts are full of allusions to the scriptures. For example they both point to Isaiah 60 when he speaks of the glory of God above, the shepherds, the coming of Gentiles and the gifts of gold and frankincense. Isaiah 60 is about the restoration of the people of God. His birth in Bethlehem is an obvious reference to Jesus’ messianic status. The people of Israel lived in a great time of national expectation. They wrote their accounts to show Jesus was the hope of Israel and the nations.
When we read these texts we should recognise how deeply woven they are into the Biblical narrative and consciousness. I enjoy Christmas as much as the next person but we should not forget the reason for the season. This time should lead us into deep reflection on the word of God and how through history, his divine hand has orchestrated these events, to give us a solitary life like no other. Jesus is the greatest man who has ever lived.