Many years ago I received a Christmas card from a friend of mine. When I pulled it from its envelope and looked at the front, I saw a simple drawing of a Christmas tree and the surprising words, “Christmas is Meaningless.” I opened the card and found additional words: “Without Easter.”
The card is correct. Although we rightly celebrate Christmas, the December holiday is not the central focus of Christianity. Instead, it is the resurrection of Jesus three days after his crucifixion that gave birth to the religion and gives significance to Jesus’ nativity. Even the New Testament does not focus much on Jesus’ birth.
Of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, only two of them mention his birth in Bethlehem. The two accounts emphasize different things. Matthew’s Gospel gives us Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy. Until God intervened with an explanation, he had been planning on breaking off their engagement, certain that she had been unfaithful.
Matthew also gives us the story of the Magi from the east who, led by a star, first approached Herod, the non-Israelite king of Judea, put on his throne by the first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. They asked to see the newborn king. Since Herod’s wives had not recently given birth, he was both puzzled and concerned, since he knew he wasn’t really the legitimate king of Israel. Speaking to his advisors, he learned that the true king of Israel would be born in Bethlehem, David’s hometown. David’s descendants were the only legitimate royalty in the land.
Sending the Magi to Bethlehem, Herod made them promise to let him know about where this baby might be. His plans were, of course, to kill the infant and thus prevent a possible coup against him or his descendants.
The Magi brought three gifts to Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Tradition tells us that there were three Magi and even gives us their names. But the New Testament does not have that information within it. In contrast to all the Nativity scenes you’ll see this Christmas, the story as told in the New Testament indicates that the Magi did not appear the night of Jesus’ birth. Instead, the Magi appeared days later, finding him in a house rather than a stable.
The Magi did not report back to Herod and Jesus’ parents quickly fled to Egypt with their newborn son. Herod, not knowing that Jesus had been moved to Egypt, ordered the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years of age or younger, hoping to get his target in a general sweep. Bethlehem was a small village, so the number of children slaughtered by Herod was probably relatively few.
Despite our current dating system, set in place by a bishop who had made his best efforts (with little hard data to go on) to figure out when Jesus had been born, we do not in fact know the year of Jesus’ birth. This is not particularly strange. We know the birth dates of hardly any other ancient historical figures. What can be said for certain about Jesus’ birth date is that it had to be before 4 BC, since that is the year that Herod died.
If you visit a planetarium in December, you’ll doubtless be entertained by a presentation on the “Star of Bethlehem” where attempts will be made to link what the Magi saw to various possible astronomical events, ranging from a supernova to the conjunction of various planets. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what it was that the Magi saw. Probably it was something of interest to ancient Mesopotamian astrologers such as the Magi (most likely they were Zoroastrian priests)–and thus perhaps not interesting or notable for anyone else.
The other New Testament account of Jesus’ birth appears in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel. There, the story focuses on Mary’s reaction to the news that she will give birth to the Messiah. It is from Luke that we hear of “no room in the inn,” the manger, the swaddling clothes, and the shepherds who were directed by angels to see the infant.
While only Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ birth, the resurrection of Jesus is announced in all four of the Gospel narratives and repeatedly throughout the rest of the New Testament: in the recorded sermons given by various apostles in the book of Acts, and in the letters from Paul, Peter, John and others. There are no sermons about Jesus’ birth, no theological reflections on Mary’s virginity. But Jesus’ death and resurrection form the core of the Christian message.
In fact, in the first of the letters Paul wrote to a congregation in the Greek city of Corinth, he explains that, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
Therefore, Christians celebrate Christmas each year only because they know that Easter is coming.