But having a such a different sort of Christmas hasn't been all bad. There is a positive side to it too. The first Christmas wasn't at all like how we normally celebrate or imagine it either; it was a very different sort of Christmas as well. Not being able to have a ‘traditional Christmas’ perhaps gives us an opportunity to ask what the first Christmas was really like. Our image of it is somewhat different to the reality.
Much as I love the carol, it wasn't ‘bleak mid-winter’! There wouldn't have been shepherds in the fields if it was (Luke 2:8). And while it is perfectly okay to have scenes on our Christmas cards showing what Christmas was and is like in parts of northern Europe, there wasn’t snow on the stable roof.
The image of the stable itself is only a half truth. The ‘inn’ with no room, from which Joseph and his pregnant wife are supposed to have been turned away, is a misunderstanding based on a wrong translation. The word St Luke uses, which has traditionally been translated ‘inn’, means lodging or guest room (Luke 2:7). It is the same word St Luke uses for the room where the Last Supper takes place (Luke 22:11). Is it likely that no-one in a Jewish village would help a mother about to give birth?
Our image of the baby Jesus surrounded by animals, at least, is right, although there is nothing particularly unusual about it. Middle Eastern homes brought the animals in at night for safe-keeping. We ought to think, then, of a place in the house away from everyone else where Mary could have some privacy. St Matthew tells us that when the Wise Men came, they came to the ‘house where they were staying’ (Matthew 2:11).
And while we are talking about the Wise Men, we are not told how many of them there were, only that they brought three gifts. The baby Jesus was probably out of the manger by the time they got there. After all, King Herod killed all the babies under two years of age (Matthew 2:16).
In our Gospel reading this week, we read how Mary and Joseph seem to be functioning perfectly normally only a few days after Jesus’ birth. The baby Jesus is circumcised on the ‘eighth day’, as was the standard practice according to the Law. We will read later in St Luke’s Gospel of how about forty days after the birth, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple, again following the practice laid down in the Law (Luke 2:22). The Holy Family obviously have a place to stay in Bethlehem on a long-term basis! It was one that, in all likelihood, they had arranged for in advance before making the trip to Bethlehem.
The way the Gospel writers describe the Nativity of Our Lord, is, then, very different to how we often imagine it today and to how we normally celebrate it.
Now I should say at once that I'm not for one moment suggesting that we join those who don't think that the birth of Jesus took place in the way the Gospel writers describe it. Sadly, there are those, both in the Church and outside of it, who treat the Christmas story as a kind of fairy story. For them, the Nativity is like the Nutcracker, the Messiah, or other works, that traditionally get performed at this time of the year. They think it is a great story and one that has a message for us, but they don’t think that most of it actually happened in the way the Gospel writers describe.
So, to avoid any misunderstanding: what I am saying is that the Christmas story, not only happened, but that it happened in precisely the way the Gospel writers say that it happened. What is more, it has to have happened in the way the Gospel writers tell us it happened or our faith is built on a shaky foundation.
It is because the Gospel writers are describing a historical event that is foundational to our faith that it is important that we stick to their account of how it happened and not embroider it to make it more fairy story like. The more we do that, the more unreal and detached from history it becomes. The Gospel writers are seeking to give an account of something that happened, and which it matters that it happened.
At Easter, we often read the words of St Paul in first Corinthians chapter 15. He tells those in the Church in Corinth who were doubting it, that if the resurrection has not happened, then we are misrepresenting God by saying that he has raised Christ from the dead. And if Christ is not raised and alive, St Paul writes, our ‘faith has been in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14), and we are ‘of all people most to be pitied’ (1 Corinthians 15:19). Central to our faith as believers and to who we are is the fact that Christ died and was raised, and is now alive.
But what is true of the death and resurrection of our Lord is true also of his birth and incarnation. If St Paul had been confronted with people who doubted the incarnation of our Lord and the story of his birth in the way some in the Church in Corinth doubted the story of his death and resurrection, then he would have written in a similar way. If Christ is not God Incarnate, the word made flesh, born of Mary, then we are of all people most to be pitied.
St John doesn’t quite put it in these words, but he says much the same thing, both in his Gospel and in his letters. In his letters, belief in the incarnation is a test of spiritual authenticity. St John writes:
‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God …’ (1 John 4:2)
The New Testament writers are all agreed on the importance of both the resurrection and the incarnation. St Peter speaks for them all when he writes:
‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ (2 Peter 1:16)
Our faith is a historical faith. It is not simply general truths about life, in general, or about how we should live our own lives, in particular. It is frequently said that the world’s religions have much in common when it comes to their ethical teaching. And this is true to a point. This is often used as an argument as to why religions should lay aside what other differences they have and work more closely together based on the things they have in common.
This, however, shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of our faith. Yes, as believers we do seek to live a certain way, we want to be good people, and in following Christ we aim to keep his commandments. But our faith is not a moral code; it is not a system of ethics. It is based completely and absolutely on a person and on certain beliefs about that person. Jesus is not a way but the way, as Jesus himself puts it in St John's Gospel (John 14:6).
St Paul writes in our second reading:
‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman …’ (Galatians 4:4)
The birth of Jesus was no chance happening; it was not an accident of history, something that happened at this time, but which could have happened at any other time. It had to be this time because this was the right time, God’s chosen time, ‘the fulness of time’.
The birth of Jesus was not just about God sending us a religious teacher or prophet to tell us about him and to show us how to live, this was God himself in the person of his Son entering space, time, and history. This baby ‘born of a woman’ was ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ (Matthew 1:23).
This is why we always read the beginning of St John’s Gospel on Christmas Night, even though it doesn’t mention the actual circumstances of Jesus’ birth. (If you haven’t had a chance to watch the service and listen to the sermon yet, then I would encourage you to do so. Not, I hasten to add, because I think it is an especially good sermon, but because I try to explain more fully what St John is trying to tell us in this amazing passage.)
At the heart of that passage is a truly incredible thought: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). St John, in this passage, has already told us that the One whom he calls the Word, was the One through whom all things came into existence and the One for whom all things came into existence. And then … and then … the One who is beyond all existence enters our existence, and not only enters it, but enters it as one of us, as exactly like us. ‘Emanuel’, not only God with us, but God one of us.
In the Ten Commandments, the Jewish people were absolutely forbidden to make any likeness or image of God. The Israelites were always tempted to make such images in the same way that the other nations made them. These idols were attempts to give their worshippers a visual image of the god being worshipped. God himself has now given us a visual image of himself in Mary's baby. St Paul writes to the Church in Colossae:
‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.’ (Colossians 1:15-16)
It is hard for us quite to get our minds around it. This baby, whose birth we are celebrating, is the One who, even while he was still a baby, nothing and no-one could exist without because everything that exists depends on him not only to come into existence but to continue in existence. As St Paul goes on to write: ‘in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:17). Without him, everything would quite literally ‘fall apart’!
But here's the thing: although he perfectly and completely reveals God that's not why he came. As I said on Christmas Night, he didn't come to teach us spiritual truths, or to show us how to live, or to establish a church, although he does do all these things. He also didn't come simply to reveal God to us, although he does do that and does so definitively, so that if we want to know what God is like this is where we now look.
So why did he come? The clue lies in his name. As St Luke writes in our Gospel reading:
‘After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’ (Luke 2:21)
The name Jesus means, ‘God saves’. The angel told Joseph that the reason he was to be called Jesus was that he would ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). St Paul writes that God ‘sent his son, born of a woman, born under Law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law’. Why did we need redeeming from the Law? After all, St Paul is talking now about God’s Law? We needed redeeming from God’s Law, because God’s Law shows how bad and lost we are. How sinful we are. How far from God we are ‘having no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:21). We are ‘in the darkness’, as St John puts it.
As we saw on Christmas Night, this baby in the Manger is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). But, and this is where it gets more amazing still, not only does Jesus save us from our sin, making it possible for us to find forgiveness and peace with God, he makes it possible, as St Paul writes, for us to be adopted as God’s children. And because we are God’s children, St Paul tells us:
‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’’ (Galatians 4:6)
This is not just St Paul letting his pen runaway with him, St John also writes:
‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God …’ (John 1:12)
We perhaps don't appreciate how amazing this is because we simply assume that we are already God’s children. We believe we are pretty special as it is. It is, of course, nice to be told that God loves us, but, then, we think, why wouldn't he? If that is how you think, then the message of Christmas is not for you. Christmas has nothing to offer you except for a change from the normal routine.
Christmas is for those who are sad, lonely, broken, and desperate. It is for those who know that they are not a success and are conscious of their failure. It is for those who know their sin. If this is you, then the message of Christmas most definitely is for you: ‘you shall call him Jesus for he shall save his people from their sin’ (Matthew 1:21); ‘behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).
And not only will Jesus save you, he will also enable you to become a child of God and make you a part of his family. One saint said, ‘He became what we are so that we might become what He is’. Yes, Christmas really happened and because it happened, we can have hope, no matter how hopeless things around us may seem. One of the most popular Christmas carols has these words:
‘O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in:
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.’
The holy Child of Bethlehem whose birth we celebrate at Christmas was Emmanuel, God with us and because he was born, because it happened, he can be born in us today: ‘we can become what he is’ and, by God’s Spirit given to us, we can call God, Father.
Christmas is passing all too quickly. It will soon be time to deal with the pressing concerns and the realities of life. 2021 beckons, none of us knowing for certain what it will bring. Make sure you enter it as a child of God the Father, with God’s Son to accompany you, and his Spirit to guide you.
‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:11-13)
Don’t let this Christmas pass without the holy Child of Bethlehem being born in you today.