Celebrating Jesus’ birth first began in Egypt around 200 c.e. with an emphasis on the visit of the Magi and the holy family’s time in Egypt. Christmas on December 25 began in Rome about 336 c.e. with the expectation it would replace the traditional festive holiday honoring the sun gods. It didn’t work. The sun gods may be gone but the old Roman festival is still with us as the secular side of Christmas. We can enjoy both.
The Christmas story will be told time and again over the next few weeks. The most familiar will be the children’s pageant that packs in every gospel theme rolled into one story. Others will be entertained by Hallmark movies revealing the true meaning of Christmas with sentimental romance, lots of magic, and not a mention of Jesus. Skeptics will proclaim the whole thing is a fabrication third century Christians made up to explain where Jesus came from. After all only two gospels have a birth narrative, each quite different from the other.
I doubt that any follower of Jesus used their imagination to make up the Christmas story. The record indicates determination to tell the true story as best they could with what they had available. Let’s take a brief survey to see what was going on at the time.
Neither Mark nor John has a birth narrative. Mark’s gospel is short and spare. He wrote it five or six years after the execution of Peter and was possibly the one who had recorded Peter’s teachings. It was in the middle of the Jewish war or rebellion against Roman rule and shortly after the destruction of the temple. My guess is that the writer was unsure whether he would live to complete a full gospel narrative so concentrated on sketching out the core facts as he knew them. Whether or not he intended to fill it in later, he didn’t.
John was written very late in the first century. He was well aware of what Mark, Matthew and Luke had written and saw no reason to repeat them. More important to John was to expand on events and teachings to clearly illustrate that Jesus was the Word of God made flesh.
Matthew and Luke did not make things up using their imaginations. They knew Jesus was born in Bethlehem of an unmarried virgin. They knew that Mary’s pregnancy was not natural and came through the power of God’s presence taking form in her womb. Skeptics have a problem with that because it introduces the supernatural, and it doesn’t even follow the myths about gods seducing women to produce semi-divine godlets. Well, that’s their problem. Our religion is supernatural and understands the indwelling of the supernatural with the natural.
That Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, would enter the world in the most vulnerable way possible, dependent entirely on Mary to nourish him with her own body and blood, and on Joseph to protect him when he was a defenseless baby and toddler is a really shabby way to invent a new myth about the savior of the world. No one would write it if there was no truth in it. The whole idea is too preposterous.
True, Matthew and Luke have different versions. In Matthew, Joseph is the lead character. He has little to say but makes all the decisions. The Annunciation comes to him, not Mary. There is no mention of Nazareth as the starting point. Jesus may have been two or three years old when the Magi visited. After a sojourn in Egypt the holy family did settle in Nazareth. Who knows? Nazareth may have been the starting point and Matthew just didn’t mention it.
Luke’s birth narrative is more familiar because it’s the foundation of our modern day “Charlie Brown’s Christmas.” Mary is the lead character in Luke. It is she to whom the Annunciation is made; she travels south to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. The journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a stable, the visit of shepherds and angel choirs singing in the sky are in Luke’s account.
I believe Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for at least forty days or so. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and thirty days later Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in the temple for the rites of purification for a new mother. Luke says nothing about whether they stayed longer or went to Egypt before going home to Nazareth.
We take the two accounts as bearing truth according to facts as the writers were able to gather them. Frankly, for all the differences, the two stories are more coherent than some of the stories my wife and I tell about events we’ve attended together. The two versions do not have to be the same to be true.
In the end, what bothers skeptics the most is God’s invasion of ordinary human life. It just doesn’t make sense, but God is not bound by human limitations and what makes sense in the ordinary way of things. Well, so be it. When will we learn that God does not conform to our expectations? We are expected to conform to God’s expectations as best we can. As for our household, we rejoice in celebrating the nativity of Jesus Christ who came to serve and save in the most improbable way possible.