The ABCs of Christmas Continue… (part 1)
On Christmas Eve, we had two wonderful services. At 10pm we had a beautiful service with communion and candles. It was so peaceful as we sang “Silent Night” in the dark surrounded by the flicker of candlelight!
Our 7pm service had the theme “The ABCs of Christmas.” It was an interactive service as we moved through different aspects of the Christmas Story. When we reached Q, it stood for Questions, and everyone had the opportunity to reflect, and to write down questions to offer as part of our Christmas Eve offering. I’d promised I would respond to and reflect on some of these questions as a part of my Weekday Wonderings for the first part of January, so you will see several posts on this topic.
There were quite a range of questions, but one group related to what I would call the practical questions:
- Which story is closest?
- What kind of animals were really in the stable?
- What would the temperature/climate have been the night Jesus was born? When was Jesus actually born?
- Is Bethlehem still an important city today?
- Do the details of the story matter? Are we missing the point?
- How do we know?
The truth is that we don’t know most, perhaps even any, of the practical or literal details of Jesus’ birth. Two of the gospel writers – Matthew and Luke – tell different stories about the birth, and although we often try to combine them in the Christmas story we tell, there are details that directly contradict each other, and others that are very different from each other (this was the theme of our wonderful pageant!) The stories also don’t include details such as the date of Jesus’ birth, animals that may have been present, or other details of the setting, such as the temperature and time of year. Although we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, this was a date chosen centuries later, because it corresponded to festivals related to the longest night of the year, which we know falls in December. Although we might dismiss the date, that symbolism matters.
Because all we have is stories, we don’t know which story is closest to what literally happened, but that doesn’t mean that the stories are irrelevant. In fact, while the details might not have any literal factual basis, that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter – all of the details that Matthew and Luke add to their stories are deeply significant!
For instance, in Luke’s story, the birth of Jesus is shared with a group of shepherds in the fields. Shepherds represent two different things: first, shepherds were common, everyday people. They weren’t particularly important – not priests or kings or government officials – and they weren’t even with other people all that often – to tend to their sheep they would often be off on their own, exposed to the outdoors, on the edges of the common life. When the story tells us it is the shepherds who hear the news first, it is a reminder that this birth, the life of Jesus, is for common, everyday people. It is a birth, an act of love, that happens at the edges. It is a reminder that God’s sense of who is important is not the same as the world’s. At the same time, shepherds have a special place within the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. We hear that King David, before he became king, was a shepherd. Just like Bethlehem is connected with David, and thus with royalty, so is the presence of shepherds. It would mean something completely different, if Jesus had been visited by a group of rabbis, or a group of Roman soldiers. So, I would suggest the details matter deeply – but not whether or not they “actually” happened.
(About Bethlehem today – with a present population of roughly 30,000 Bethlehem’s location makes it significant in a very different way. Due to its significance to Christians, its major industry is tourism. In 1995, it became a Palestinian city, and located in the West Bank of Palestine. Nearby are enclaves of West Bank settlers. You can see a few images that touch on the politics here: http://www.bethlehem-city.org/en/politics-64)