Summary: Did you know that parts of the traditional Christmas story we tell and sing about in our churches are from a 3rd century novel and not the Scriptures?
The Original Christmas—Part 1
What We’ve Been Missing
Every year as Christmas draws near, pastors and churches around the world begin preparing sermons, pageants, cantatas, and a variety of other spectacles to retell the oft-told story of that very first Christmas long, long ago.
It is traditional to read about the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, no room at the inn, Joseph, Mary, the donkey, and the baby Jesus lying in a manger. It is good for us to recall the story of the birth of the Savior.
What I want to share with you beginning today and stretching over the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, is some of the lost information about those days, that culture, and the people in these stories.
What do I mean by “lost”? Well, did you know that many of the traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus do not really fit with what the text of Scripture tells us if we translate the words correctly and if we know a little about the people and the culture of the area in those days?
One example is the tradition that Jesus was born in a barn. We nice that up by calling it a “stable”, but the fact remains that millions of nativity scenes the world over—ours included—have the venue for that first Christmas taking place in a wooden lean-to. As you will see in a moment, that isn’t at all what took place.
There are several others, so let’s get started, shall we?
In every culture throughout the world, a woman giving birth is given special attention. In the towns and villages of the Middle East, which is where Judea is, the birth of a child is a much-celebrated and much-shared experience.
Imagine for a moment that a young woman in need of help and shelter at the moment of her birth were to arrive on your doorstep. Imagine that she is someone that you do not know at all. What would you do?
Why, you would insist that she come right in—along with anyone who was with her—and you would do everything you could to help her in her need, would you not? Of course you would!
Hospitality is a matter of honor and tradition in the Middle East, and it has always been so. All we need to do is look back at the story of the three strangers coming to Abraham’s camp recorded in Genesis 18, and the extravagant care he took to make them comfortable, to feed them, and to make sure that their needs were met to see how deeply ingrained in the culture hospitality toward strangers has always been. Travel there today and you will find that it is still the same, especially in the small villages.
Dare we imagine that Bethlehem in the days of Mary and Joseph would have been any different? Would a young woman on the verge of giving birth not have been provided everything she needed—and more—by the people in that small community?
Some say that the small town was overflowing with people from all over and that the resources there were stretched beyond thin. Okay, then think back to the widow who fed Elijah with the last bit of flour and oil that she had, knowing that that was the last food she had to prepare and that she and her son would die of starvation when that was gone. What was her response when Elijah asked her to make a small loaf and feed him?
Read the story again in 1 Kings 17 (this can be your homework for this week), and you will find that she resisted for only a moment, but then took Elijah at his word that there would be enough for them, so she did as he asked. And, we know that God performed a miracle for her for her faithfulness—two, in fact (you will have to read it to see).
This, and the story I mentioned from the life of Abraham, show the level of self-sacrifice people were willing to go to whenever there was a visitor to their home. Packed or not, the people of Bethlehem would not have turned Mary away.
Something else to consider is the timing of the arrival of the party from Nazareth and the birth of Jesus. Tradition has led us to the place where all of our plays and pageants telling this story have Jesus being born on the very night of the arrival of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem.
Let’s look at Luke 2:4-6 for a moment. These verses tell us that Joseph took Mary, who was pregnant, with him to Bethlehem to be registered for the Roman tax as they and the rest of the Jews had been commanded to do.