Well, today is Christmas Eve. And this day always brings images of Mary and Joseph coming into the little town of Bethlehem looking for some place to lay their heads and for Mary to give birth to the child who would grow up to change the world forever, or at least as long as there are people here. It’s a beautiful story; it really is. I hope it’s true, or at least most of it.
Of course there are a lot of historical problems with the story. And this all stems from the simple fact that the only sources we have for this story come from two of the gospels, Luke and Matthew. Mark and John both pick up the story of Jesus when he is baptized by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke were never trying to be history books. They were simple stories for the true believers written by followers of Luke and Matthew because it didn’t look like Jesus was coming back as soon as everybody thought he was and they thought it would be a good idea to pass the story along.
Moreover, they never meant to be factual accounts of his life. In fact, to be fair, it should be pointed out that it is quite possible that much of the story may have been reverse engineered, as it were. There were a great many prophecies about the coming of the messiah, the one who was to save his people. One is from the book of Micah.
“But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.” Bethlehem was the town from which the great king, David, came. The messiah, according to all prophecies, was to be of the lineage of David. Isaiah says, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” Matthew goes into great detail showing the genealogy of Jesus back all the way to Adam in order to prove his ancestry. So does Luke. One goes though Joseph, which, according to the official story, shouldn’t really make any difference if you know what I mean, and I think you do. The other goes through Mary, which would make more sense, if you consider the manner in which Jesus was supposed to have been conceived.
That prophecy goes back to Isaiah. “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” Of course, the word translated as virgin, actually more correctly is translated as maiden, a young unmarried woman, whom would be assumed to be a virgin, but then, things are not always as you assume. At any rate, a number of these attributes to the story may have been added to the Gospel According to Matthew in order to match the prophecies. This is because Matthew was written for the Jews, who would have cared. Luke, on the other hand, was written for the gentiles, who wouldn’t have given a fiddler’s fart about the prophecies, not being raised in the traditions of the Jewish people, nor would they feel this intense need for salvation.
So it’s up to us to decide whether or not the story is a true one. To me, the inaccuracies actually give the story more credibility. For example, the prophecy says he will be named Emmanuel, god is with us. But they didn’t name him Emmanuel, did they? They didn’t name him Jesus either. They named him Yeshua, which means deliverer (and not the pizza sort). So if they were trying to match the prophecy, they screwed up there. And if they thought anybody was going to check, they would have done a better job on checking their history. Luke opens with Caesar Augustus being in power in Rome and when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Unfortunately, there was no census taken in Judea during that time, at least not at the time when Jesus was supposed to have been born. So what would have brought Joseph to Bethlehem, along with Mary, his wife? And I would have to say, who knows? Perhaps they lived there. Perhaps they were just passing though.
I have no doubt that whoever wrote down that information had some vague memory of there being a census sometime around that time, and thinking the birth of Jesus may have been tied to it. Matthew would have been written a good forty years at least after the death of Jesus and Luke was written much later than that. It is likely that both books borrowed heavily from another gospel which has not, as yet, come to light, called the “Q” document. After forty to fifty years, facts get sort of mixed up and distorted. Shit, I can’t even remember what happened a few years ago, let alone forty.
Of course, my first thought is why would we think it not true? I mean, miracles aside (although, I have no problem with miracles), why would we doubt it? If I ask you what you did last week, you would tell me, and I would have no reason to think you were not telling the truth. If you think about it, for most of us it’s pretty hard to prove what we did at any given time. So what if Augustus wasn’t the emperor, or if no census was taken. That doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, or that his parents weren’t Joseph and Mary. Many parts of the story we have created from our traditions, not from scriptural references. The Bible never says three kings came to see Jesus. It simply says wise men from the east. That could have been any number of people. It most likely was a group of astrologers who had read the stars and had foreseen the arrival of somebody important.
And there is no doubt that Jesus was important. He may not have seemed that way as an infant. But certainly, if there is any truth at all in the accounts of his life and of his words, he was different from other people calling for a return to faith. In many ways, he stood in direct opposition to all that was traditional. As we look back over our human history, we can see a lot of people who were different. Consider Gautauma, the Buddha, consider Lao Tzu, consider Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa. No, they weren’t perfect, but then I doubt Jesus was either. He got angry. He battled with his faith. But all of these people, Jesus included, were touched by the divine, however you want to consider it.
No, I have every reason to believe that the story happened pretty much the way they say it did. And I have no doubt that Mary knew that the child she was carrying was someone special, although I doubt she new just how special he would end up being. The message he would bring would be different from any other message the world had yet received. It was not a message of war, or a prophecy of doom. It was not a condemnation of mankind, but an affirmation. Jesus told us that we were all the children of God, and that we were co-inheritors of all that God had created. He preached a message of compassion, charity, and peace. Just as Isaiah as said, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”
So today I will light a candle to welcome the Christ child. He reminds me that God is not some big scary being up in the sky, but that God, or whatever you want to call that creative spirit, is here among us. And so what the angels said was true. “…behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah. And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” I don’t know if any shepherds really heard all that or not, but I hope they did. It doesn’t change my faith one way or the other. Indeed, it has nothing to do with the truth of the message. But ain’t it a beautiful story? Happy Christmas to all. Peace be with you, and God bless.