Friday, December 25, 2015

the story of Christmas

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: we pray that as we meditate upon your Word you will lead us deeper into all truth that we may better know and do your will and grow in holiness day by day. Amen

We all, I am sure, know the story of the first Christmas. Or do we? I sometimes think all the imagined details used in Christmas cards and carols and films loom larger in the minds of many that the story as told in the Gospels. So let us tonight go over the story of the birth of our Lord as given to us by the evangelists St Matthew and St Luke, for it is they alone of the four gospel writers who give us any details of Jesus' life before his ministry began.

The story begins with Mary, a young woman who is betrothed to a man called Joseph. According to the custom of the place, this is legally a marriage, but they are not living together as man and wife. This young woman is visited by an angel who brings her startling news: she is to have a child, the Son of God, and not the son of any man. Mary, calling herself a handmaid of the Lord, agrees. She then goes with haste to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child. There she spends three months.

Meanwhile, Joseph is considering what to do, for he knows of Mary's condition; presumably because she has told him. He decides he will end the marriage quietly so as not to expose her to any public disgrace. We should not, I think, suspect that he doubts her story, for St Matthew says he plans this because he is a righteous man; and why should a righteous man wish to be thought of as a wicked man who would cast aside a young and pregnant wife for the sake of protecting her from the disgrace of her own actions? More likely such a man would think himself unworthy to be the husband of a woman chosen by God to be the mother of his Son. But he is visited by an angel in a dream and told not to be afraid of taking her as his wife. And when he awakes he does as the angel commands.

Israel at the time is under the control of the great power of its day, Rome; and the emperor decides he will conduct a census and orders all the people to go to their ancestral towns. Joseph is of the house of David and so he and his wife Mary must go to the city of David, Bethlehem. We do not know how they travelled there. Perhaps Mary did indeed ride on a donkey as it is so often depicted; she was, after all, very close to her time. But she may have walked, for it was common for groups of people to make such journeys on foot together when making the journey for festivals and the like; and such groups could only have gone as quickly as the slowest member. There would have been elderly folk and young children in any such group; so the pace would not have been too fast for a woman who was heavily pregnant in an age when people were used to life being harder than it is now – for most in the West, at least.

When they arrive in Bethlehem, they can find no place to stay. Why we can not be sure. It is a small town with most likely only one inn; perhaps with so many people there for the census it is already full. And so Mary has her baby in whatever place it is that they can find to take shelter. St Luke does not mention a stable, only that the child is laid in a manger. Inns of the time commonly had courtyards where guests could keep their animals and so mangers would have been needed in them, perhaps even under a lean-to of some sort. If it was there our Lord was born, it is unlikely that sheep or cattle would have been present; some donkeys belonging to guests are not impossible, maybe even a horse or two if some wealthy people were staying. But the evangelist makes no mention of what animals were present; only the manger.

Images of the scene often show snow on the ground. This is not likely. It does not often snow in Israel, not even in winter. And we can be quite sure that it was winter, sometime in December, even if we not be totally sure it was the 25th. No less a person than St John Chrysostom has taken the details given to us by St Luke of when Zechariah, the father of St John the Baptist, was in the temple offering incense, and used them to calculate when John was conceived; and from that date, knowing that John was six months older than Jesus, we know that the Nativity of our Lord took place in December.

While our Lord is being born in Bethlehem, in the nearby countryside the shepherds are being visited by angels, who tell them of the Messiah's birth and how they will recognise him: a child, laying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling bands. And they go to Bethlehem – just the shepherds, for the angels, as St Luke tells us, have returned to heaven - and find it just as they were told. How the shepherds find them in the town we can not know; but of one thing we can be sure; there is no star hanging over the place where the manger is placed to guide them as is so often shown in Christmas cards; and neither do the wise men join the shepherds at the manger as is so frequently depicted, for they came later, as St Matthew makes clear – perhaps many months later.

So what have we left; what do we know for sure of that night? Bethlehem in the mild winter-weather of the Near-East, shepherds visited by angels in the night, and Mary and Joseph and the child in a manger wrapped in swaddling bands. Does removing all the embellishments of storytelling and song lessen the picture of the first Christmas in any way? I think not; for these added details, even though they can often help us see things more clearly in our mind, add nothing essential to the story of Christmas. What is essential is that God has been made man and come to dwell among us; that this tiny baby lying in a manger is the one who brings salvation to us all; his birth is the beginning of the Good News that will redeem all mankind and open the way for us to eternal life in heaven. We lose nothing by removing imaginary or misplaced details from the story of his birth because by his birth we are given all we could ever need, and more than we could ever hope for, imagine, or deserve.

To the Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all honour and glory, now and unto the ages of ages: Amen. 

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