Christmas: A True Story

If you were to visit my home over Christmas, you would see a number of Christmas cards colourfully decorating the lounge. The vast majority of them are “religious cards” – not because I object to “Santa” cards, it’s just that my non-religious friends are usually at a loss to know what to do with the solitary “Mary and Jesus” card they get by default in their variety box. So they make sure that one goes to me!

What’s interesting is that, when we examine the original story as told in the Bible, the happy Polaroid of Mary, Joseph and the smiling donkey that adorns many Christmas cards could not be further from the truth. Let’s move the straw away and check the facts. What actually happened on that first Christmas Eve? Our sources are the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, both written within living memory of the events, and by two men who wanted to get the details down accurately.

Like any good story, it all begins with “girl meets boy;” in this instance, an arranged Jewish marriage between Mary and Joseph. They are engaged to be wed, quite oblivious to the fact that they are destined to become the most famous married couple in history – when it comes to long term celebrity status, not even Posh and Becks come anywhere close.

Both Matthew and Luke record that a supernatural being, an angel called Gabriel, paid a visit to Mary and Joseph, dropping an unprecedented divine bombshell – Mary was going to become pregnant through the Holy Spirit, despite being a bona fide virgin. There she was: the unmarried mum to be, and long before Jeremy Kyle could chat it through with her. And one can only imagine the confusion and the shame, especially as the identity given by the angel to this mystery baby was also out of this world. He would be called “the Son of God”.

Trouble, they say, comes in threes. With the baby due soon, the Roman Caesar Augustus decides he wants to do a head-count of everyone living in the Empire; a sort of Imperial Facebook tally of friends. This required everyone to spend a night in their hometown to register; which for Joseph meant a journey south to Bethlehem. So the pregnant Mary, contractions looming, travels with her husband by donkey the eighty miles or so to Bethlehem. Of course, with a town full of visitors for the census, and our Christmas couple lacking the clobber and the credit to book themselves into the Bethlehem Hilton, Joseph begs a place for himself and Mary in the animal’s shelter. With her own mum so far away, no bed to speak of, and only Joseph with her to help, Mary goes into labour amidst the animals. Despite the sweet carol, it is unlikely to have been a “Silent Night” in all honesty.

In the darkened fields nearby were a group of shepherds. A large number of angels appear, brightening up their evening no end, and they let them in on this special news. They use names for Jesus that had not been used of anyone else in the Bible before: Saviour, Christ and Lord. After a while these angels depart, leaving the shepherds to go into Bethlehem and seek out the new baby. Just as the angels promised, they find Jesus lying in an animal trough. It’s no wonder they called him the lamb of God.

If we followed the Christmas card image literally, this would be the point when the silhouette of three kings on camels would cross the frame. However, reading Matthew carefully, it seems likely that a gap of almost two years should be inserted here. In fact, the “Three Kings” are probably the most inaccurate bit of the traditional story. They weren’t kings and there weren’t three of them, so feel free to sing “We three kings of orient aren’t” at the carol service this year. They are called “Magi” or “wise men” and the reason we have ended up with three of them is down to the three gifts that come out of their suitcase at the end of the story. However, they did indeed spot a strange star, one that had no astronomical logic, and this inspired them to connect a prophecy given by Moses thousands of years’ earlier, indicating that an unusual star would herald the arrival of Israel’s true King (Numbers 24:17).

Unfortunately, perhaps these men weren’t as wise as their website suggested, as they wrongly figured that the best person to inform of this joyous news was the highly insecure, current king Herod. By this time, due to the expansion of the Roman Empire, he was just a puppet ruler, appointed by Caesar, and not of any genuine kingly lineage. The threat of finding himself potentially in the “dance off” pushes Herod over the edge. No pantomime villain, the Bible records that he ordered the deaths of all the boys who were two years old and under; thus dating the scene way beyond the Bethlehem maternity unit. Meeting a two year old Jesus, the wise men open their gifts. Gold, in reference to his royalty; incense because he will be a priest and the object of worship; and myrrh, an ointment used for the dead, reflecting the Easter events to come. Strikingly, Matthew tells us that these wise men bowed down and worshipped this young child.

In time, the new family would dodge the villainy of Herod, conveniently taking up an urgent vacation to Egypt. In time, the young Jesus would find himself growing up and taking on the family business of carpentry in Nazareth. And in time, Mary would find herself looking up, as Jesus hung upon a cross, the vilest form of execution ever created, and a long dormant memory of him being the ransom for all people would flash through her distraught mind. Three days later, as the Easter stone is rolled away, a whole new era of history would begin. He would be the Resurrected Lord.

So next time you see the ‘nativity’ scene, think again. Think of a penniless, young couple, a long way from home, struggling with issues of faith and destiny and no epidural. Think about frightening appearances of glowing angelic men, making declarations about the ultimate turn of human history. Think about the welcome granted to local under-dogs, as well as to far off aristocrats, to this glorious news. Most of all, think about a baby that did not come from an earthly father, one who would be called “the Son of God;” a baby who would become the centre and Saviour of all mankind. Emmanuel: God with us.

Originally published in New Life Newspaper, December 2009

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