Someone will try to put a nativity scene in a public place and someone else will be offended
at having to look at it. This can lead to protests and from there, full-blown court battles.
Bill O"Reilly will rant and rave about if this is the Christmas season or merely a generic holiday
season. A new theory will surface about what the Star of Bethlehem could have been and Israel
will beef up its security to protect their tourist trade in Bethlehem. In other words, welcome
to another Christmas season as we've come to know it in America.
Christmas, the most widely known and told story in Western lore, is the celebration of
the birth of Joshua bin Joseph, son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. It is a holiday with
layers of tradition and meaning. However, in this country, much of its religious significance
has been lost, drained away to be replaced by jolly old Santa and his elves, Christmas trees,
holly, egg nog, and presents--lots of presents! Yet, the story surrounding the birth of Jesus,
in its truest sense, is a celebration. A celebration of the seminal moment in the relationship
between us and God. A moment of such inspiration and grace that two evangelists
memorialized it in a dramatic story complete with good guys, villains, kings, and choirs
Matthew and Luke felt it important to include infancy narratives at the beginning of
their gospels; whereas the gospels of Mark and John simply introduce the adult Jesus as
He starts His public ministry. Why did Mark and John ignore the event? More importantly,
why did Matthew and Luke feel the need to write about it? As they were writing in about
70CE(70A.D.), what message did they want to convey? Matthew and Luke are two of the
three synoptic gospels. Mark was the third. "Synoptic" means coming from one or a similar
view. Most scholars believe both Matthew and Luke had Mark's gospel already. It is also
believed that there was another source of Jesus stories known as "Q" (Quelle) which predates
even Mark's account and to which Mark, Matthew, and Luke each referred in their writings.
No one has ever found "Q", but scholars believe it existed.
Matthew and Luke are writing for different audiences and this affects the way they tell
the infancy story. Matthew is writing for Jews. He wants to emphasize Jesus as the Messiah
prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses who brings a
new law and covenant to the Jews. This is why he includes a genealogy, or family tree, which
traces Jesus's roots back to David. Jesus is a descendent of David; and Matthew wants to
reinforce Jesus's family returning to Bethlehem, the city of David, to respond to a world-wide
census. It is Matthew's gospel which includes the story of the three wise men, a story which
allows Matthew to proclaim Jesus a new king. It also has Jesus's life in jeopardy from Herod
and his order to kill all first-born male children. (Sounds similar to Passover, doesn't it?)
The family flees to Egypt only to return later. For Matthew, Jesus, like Moses, miraculously
escapes death as a child due to God's intervention and comes out of Egypt to lead his people
to a new promised land.
Luke, however, is writing for Gentiles. Luke's infancy story emphasizes a different Jesus,
one who is for everyone, not just Jews. Luke stresses the poverty Jesus is born into and
stresses His ministry to the poor; thus Luke includes the lack of inn space, the birth of this
extraordinary person in a barn, and His divine cradle as a mere feed trough. While Matthew
writes about a star and kings and valuable presents; Luke writes about poor shepherds
tending their flocks, hearing choirs of angels and being directed to a manger to worship
the one who brings glad tidings of peace on earth and good will towards all.
Are these stories intended to be taken literally as eyewitness reports about the events
surrounding the birth of Jesus and mankind? Or, should the unified story be used to relate
important beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus, and us? Is this a classic example of a
hopeful story being more important than historical fact?
As you may have already noticed, the classic Christmas story is an amalgam of both
Matthew's and Luke's gospels. Both evangelists have structured their "truths" within a
construction of mythic elements. With this in mind, scholars have found no evidence of
a census in the Roman Empire around the time of Tiberius. There is no evidence of a
slaughter of innocents around the time Herod was tetrarch of Judea. Astronomers have
tried for 2000 years to explain the star with little success. The wise men might have been
Persian magicians (thus the word magi). Then there is also the matter of Christ's birthday.
It's clear if shepherds were in their fields tending their flocks, this could not have been
winter. The reason Christmas is on December 25th is due to a combination of the politics
of religion, the politics of nations, and a calendar adjustment. When Christianity supplanted
pagan religions in the Roman Empire around 300CE (300A.D.), one of the biggest religious
celebrations was the Winter Equinox. It was the shortest day of he year on December 21st.
Among pagans, it was called the"Feast of the Unconquerable Sun". Christian leaders
appropriated the holiday and it became the "Feast of the Unconquerable Son". Later,
because of a calendar adjustment, December 21st became December 25th, and thus the day
we celebrate as the birthday of Jesus.
With this said, the "facts" might not seem to add up; but the "truths" Matthew and Luke
offer us stand out clearly. Over and above all this awkward contradiction remains that
simple question. What were the evangelists ultimately trying to say about the Jesus event
with their infancy stories? Why did they call Him Emmanuel (God with us)? How is the
world different before and after the birth of Jesus? How is God different after the birth of
Jesus? One of my favorite questions is: How is God plus Jesus different from God alone?
Up until Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes, the experts, coaches, and
scientists didn't believe it could be done. After he broke that barrier, many others came
along and broke it again and again. Today, high school students have run a sub-four-minute
mile. Up until Joan Benoit ran and won the first women's marathon, it was accepted wisdom
that women couldn't run distances of that length without harming themselves. Most felt
women's bodies were not built for the stress and that their reproductive capabilities would
suffer. She ran that marathon in 1976, not in some ancient time; and today women are
running 100-mile ultra marathons as fast as men in many cases.
When Sir Edmund Hillary ascended to the top of Mt. Everest, it was considered
impossible and news of his achievement rocked the world. Since then, hundreds of men
and women have made the same climb. The breaking of a barrier, the conquering of the
unconquerable, the act of achieving something new somehow convinced or allowed or
encouraged others to have a new relationship to time, effort, or their presumed physical
We call Jesus Emmanuel. We celebrate Christmas and talk about the incarnation
(God uniting with our humanity in a whole new way). This is why Christmas is such an
incredible day. It celebrates something new, and because of this a barrier has been broken!
It reminds us things were not always like this and because of Jesus things are changed forever.
Scripture is the chronicle of the saga of God revealing and humans seeing. It is the story
of revelation and epiphany. The insight of Abraham, that Yahweh is knowable and wants
to relate to us; is played out in Scripture from the Patriarchs through Moses and the prophets.
God continuously tries to draw us into a relationship. However, some of us choose to place
distance between God and ourselves and those choices are often understood as sin. But
despite rejection, disobedience, rebellion, and infidelity, God continues to try to be more
and more intimate with Her creation.
Imagine being a parent estranged from your children. Friends, I speak of what I know.
Just being far away from my wife and children is painful beyond words. But...to have them
choose to be separate from me would be unbearable. God created us for one reason. God
created us in a relationship of love. But love is a two-way relationship. No relationship can
exist in only one direction. It's a mutual giving. From the dawn of creation, God's desire was
to know and love Her creation. God wanted to relate in an intimate way; but despite moments
of transcendence and glimpses of imminence, we continued to fall short. And as much as we
longed to have God with us in what is often a dark, lonely, and dispiriting world; it simply
was not possible...until the birth of Jesus.
The birth of Jesus opened up a new relationship, a new intimacy with God. Jesus
actually chose to love God and His neighbor. He turned the other cheek, forgave an infinite
number of times, served the least of His brothers and sisters, and in the process drew so close
to God and God to Him; the only way He could describe the relationship was to call God
"Abba". In this name everything became clear. The word "Abba" stands for the most
affectionate, loving, and trusting name you could come up with to call a parent, Daddy, Pop,
or whatever pet/intimate name you have for a parent.
Because Jesus chose to be as close to God as possible, because He had eyes to see and
ears to hear, because He never chose to have any distance between Himself and God; Jesus
achieved an intimacy with God never before realized in the world. As Matthew and Luke
looked at the Jesus event through the prism of His short life, death, and resurrection; they
saw the incarnation. They understood something new had occurred. Something was open
and available that hadn't existed before. Light had conquered darkness! The good news
needed to be proclaimed. So, they created the most powerful vehicle they could to convey
this most unique and liberating insight: The Christmas story! A story of God becoming man,
of choirs of angels, of stars pointing out His location, and of kings that bowed to a baby.
It is a message intended for the rich and poor, the powerful and weak, the kings and the
So, this year, as you put your Christmas tree up and hang the ornaments with their
Santas and reindeer, reflect on the moment when light conquered darkness and love overcame
fear. And when you see the candles and hear the bells and sing the hymns, take time to
marvel at the greatest gift mankind has ever received: The birth of the first baby, the living
link between God and the future hope of God's kingdom on earth. A kingdom founded on
love. A kingdom that transcends nations. A kingdom that promises peace on earth and
goodwill toward all. For on this day Emmanuel was born...God's gift of love. Now it's our
turn, don't you think? Merry Christmas! I welcome your comments. Please send them to