Christmas is one of those periods I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand I really enjoy the rest and festivities of the period. On the other as a Christian, I struggle to see how our Christmas traditions have something to do with Jesus. When you read the New Testament, particularly the gospels, and what it has to say about Jesus and his birth, how we approach it does not seem to capture the same import that it had on the first followers of Jesus.
First of all, many of the festive traditions we have today do not proceed from the New Testament. Most of our Christmas traditions are derived from medieval Europe and later periods (not pagan of origin as some contend). I actually do not have a problem with Santa, Christmas trees and all the holiday ephemera. Like most people I have fun with them yet they are simply not biblical. This of course does not mean they do not have value but they just don’t feature in the Bible. The second difficulty is with the nativity itself. There are two issues with this. First, is how we imagine it and second is its significance in the New Testament.
Since a lot of our Christmas traditions do not come from the Bible we tend to make the mistake of reading our own interpretations back into the text. The whole picture of a young struggling couple, journeying a long way to fulfill some bureaucratic ordinance, while the young mother is heavily pregnant, reaching their destination of a busy, mean spirited town and forced to give birth in ignoble circumstances is completely wrong. The late Dr Ken Bailey, who spent a great part of his life living in the Middle East and teaching the New Testament in its cultural context, significantly revised that picture yet his brilliant work is yet to be popularly heard. Here you can hear Dr Bailey himself explain in an interview what really happened. This leads to the issue of New Testament significance.
The reason why we accepted the wrong interpretation of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth is because of the historical cultural gap. Jesus lived in a very different period from ours. The gospel writers had no need to explain certain things that would have been culturally taken for granted and intuitively understood by their original audience. We have to worker a bit harder to fill in the gaps. The Jewish people themselves did not have a penchant for celebrating birthdays, it was more a Roman thing. That attitude translated to the church where some church fathers criticised birthday celebrations. That’s a huge difference from the modern world where birthdays are big things. With these things in mind it is not surprising that it took a few centuries to get Christmas going. The very date for Christmas seems to come from a later tradition where the births and deaths of auspicious individuals were often portrayed as happening on the same day. This seems far more plausible to me than being borrowed from pagan festivals. Dr Andrew McGowan has a great article over at Bible History Daily, discussing the origins of Christmas day which you can find here.
Now if the date of Jesus’ birth was arbitrarily set based on his death, it is an indication of what has greater significance to early Christians. I will talk more about this later but if we were to travel into the world of Jesus and his first followers, what would they have been doing during the yuletide? As I mentioned last year they would have been observing Hanukkah. Jesus was a bona fide Jew but his Jewishness is often lost on the Church. Most of us know criminally very little about the Jewish festival; thinking mistakenly that it is the Jewish version of Christmas. I fully get that Christmas and Hanukkah are their own things, as they should be, but as Christians we need to at least know what it is about even though we might not observe it. In the Gospel of John we see Jesus and his disciples attending the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, which is Hanukkah (John 10:22.) Even though it is not recorded in either testaments (but can be found in the deuterocanonical books) it is an event that casts a shadow on the New Testament and without it we miss many things, especially in the gospels. We need to know what it’s about.
Hanukkah is about the faithfulness of God to his covenant people, delivering them from hostile pagan rule through a revolt led by Judas Maccabee and his family, which resulted in a relatively brief period of Jewish independence. When you place the Jewish story and heritage at the centre of one’s vision of Jesus, the Lord himself said “salvation is of the Jews,” you begin to notice the nativity is really not as important as we make it out to be. What do I mean by this?
Of the top of my head I can think of maybe five direct references to Jesus’ birth in the New Testament, including mentions outside the gospels. Maybe there are more but it is still not a lot. Comparatively Jesus’ death and resurrection take up significant amounts of space. By the sheer numbers the earliest event in Jesus’ life that gets the most attention is his baptism by John. I have already talked about how the first Christians did not even bother celebrating his birth. This is not to say it isn’t important. Jesus is a significant individual so his birth matters but the circumstances of it just do not receive the same amount of attention in the New Testament. The New Testament contains only a tiny fraction of the activities of the early followers of Jesus so anything that does make its way down to us on its own is very significant. It’s just that as far as we can tell, somethings were more important than others. Only two out of four gospels mention Jesus’ birth but they all mention his baptism. One of the requirements to be a member of the Twelve is being present since the baptism. If we take Mark as the earliest Gospel, as most scholars do, it does not mention Jesus’ birth at all. It is quite ironic that Christmas is today a much bigger holiday than Easter, while the first believers were preoccupied with the events of the latter and did not really bother with the former. One thing that is common to how all the gospels begin is the fulfilment of God’s word in the scriptures.
Mark opens with a modified quote of Isaiah and his prophecy being fulfilled through the prophet John and Jesus. John the gospel author starts his gospel with his great logos discourse, the immutable word of the creator coming to dwell among his people like the tabernacle in the wilderness. Like John even the gospels that devote time to the nativity are set with in the context of the meandering grand narrative of Israel finally reaching its climax in Jesus. Matthew starts with a genealogy carefully divided into major epochs of Jewish history, which is actually a mini retelling of the Jewish narrative as the chosen people of God. Luke’s telling of John and Jesus’ birth is deliberately reminiscent of the births of other promised children in the Hebrew Bible, especially those who are to deliver Israel, as well as being impregnated with several other Old Testament allusions and references. When you read all these introductions to the gospel, you get the sense of God finally doing what he had promised for his people. When you look at the Magnificat, Mary’s own understanding of the significance of Jesus’ birth, is about YHWH returning to rescue his people and establish his just rule on earth. This is in stark contrast to the far more sentimental thoughts we have about the “Christ child being born in our hearts.”
Theologian Peter J. Leithart wrote an article, which you can find here, about how Christmas for him was “ruined” when he began to take the Jewishness of it all seriously. It is not only a different culture but a different narrative at work, which is so different from our modern narratives that it becomes very uncomfortable for us when we recognise it is quite unfamiliar to us and even strange. Without taking away from the Christmas traditions that we already have, I think we need to add another dimension, one of careful reading and sombre reflection on the scriptures. When I look at Judaism, I really admire their attention to scripture which is inextricably incorporated into their festivals and traditions. Not that Christians do not think about the Bible during our holidays but we just fail to properly foreground the scriptural narrative and how it is fulfilled in the messiah Jesus. I believe it takes away from us fully acknowledging and enjoying the deeper significance of Jesus’ birth. Now a person being born is great but it is not unusual. According to one popular song the significance of the Son of God entering the world is that he was ‘born to die.’ Well that is true but in a painfully limited and truncated sense. Advent is about God fulfilling his promise to Abraham to rescue the world through his family. It is about all the threads of the scriptural narrative, winding through the ages, finally converging in one individual, to take the Jewish story and human history towards its divinely intended goal.