The Christmas story has been told countless times over the two millennia since the event occurred in Bethlehem in the far away hills of Judea.
While the basic fact has long been accepted, many of the details are certainly in dispute. December 25th almost without doubt is not the Christ child’s birthday.
Scholars disagree, as well, on the year of Jesus’ birth.
Our Anno Domini system used to number our years, places his birth as its starting point. Devised in the 6th century its creators got it wrong. By varied calculations the actual event arguably occurs two to seven years earlier. So is it now really 2015?
How about the birth in the stable?
The traditional interpretation just doesn’t work for Kenneth Bailey, an emeritus research professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies for the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Hospitality and assistance, especially to a woman about to give birth, would have been forthcoming at that time as in our own.
On top of that Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home. “To turn away a descendant of David in the City of David,” argues Professor Bailey in his book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, “would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village.”
Most peasant homes in the Palestine of that era had a stable attached to them both to provide additional warmth for the household and security for the livestock, notes Bailey.
“At his birth, the holy family was welcomed into a peasant home. The people of Bethlehem offered the best they had and preserved their honour as a community.”
We can’t let contradictory details derail or obscure the basic message underlying what occurred.
Take the birth story which begins some months earlier in the Gospel of Matthew (1:18-24) as an example.
In it, an undeniable fact could no longer be ignored.
Mary was pregnant. Joseph wasn’t the father. But “being a righteous man” as we hear in this gospel reading, he intended to “dismiss her quietly.” No need to make a difficult situation worse for the young woman.
Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents, would have no option but to accept her back. Obviously they would have to bear the shame along with her. In their small tightknit community no hope of escaping the gossip and judgement from neighbours existed for them.
As discreet as Joseph might hoped to be, their lives would never be the same.
What do we read into this? Would we have acted as Joseph did? All the supposed facts are in plain sight. We make our judgement. After all, we are doing the right thing, a line has been crossed, a code violated. Our actions then close doors, lives are blunted. A cascade of consequences begins. Only later we find out that a larger truth, other circumstances have been concealed from our view. We just didn’t see them.
Later in the passage Joseph has a dream. An angel of the Lord speaks to him. The word of the prophet Isaiah has been fulfilled. When Joseph awakes, he has no hesitation. He abandons his previous resolve. Joseph takes Mary as his wife.
As individuals or nations, doesn’t the message underlying the ‘facts’ of the incident demand that we pause in our rush to judge others.
What other Christmas messages have we allowed to be obscured by the cynicism or blinding consumerism of our time?
What will allow us to hear and see how Emmanuel, “God is with us,” offers grace and peace today to all?
Have a peace-filled Christmas!
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, December 21 — 4th Sunday of Advent. The suggested reading is Luke: 1: 26-38.
Monday, December 22 — Hanukkah, the eight day Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorating the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in 165-164 b.c.e., begins. One Menorah candle is lit each night and gifts exchanged.
Thursday, December 25 — Christmas honours the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Friday, December 26 – Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration honouring African heritage, begins with the lighting of the kinara candles.
Monday, December 29 — The Hijra, marking the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina, begins the Islamic New Year of 1430.