A stripped-back Christmas

A family Christmas?

(This post was intended for Christmas day, but I was not online to see if it had been posted correctly. So here it is three days later.)

Christmas nativity scene at the Franciscan church in Sanok 2010,
Picture from Wikimedia Commons

At the time of writing, we do not know if the traditional family Christmas will be on. The English Government met on Tuesday 21st December 2021 and said that Christmas would still be on but that further restrictions would come in on December 26th. Or 28th. The BBC said Boxing day, do they mean the day after Christmas Day or the Boxing Day Bank Holiday? However, they also said that they are still monitoring the situation, which leaves a worrying doubt in the minds of many.

But what is Christmas all about? We all think we know the Christmas story, of a child being born in a stable because there is no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn and being laid in a manger with an ox and ass looking on. Later shepherds arrive with a lamb and then three Kings from the east come because they have followed a star.

But how much of that is actually in the stories we have in the Bible and how much is later legend? Of the four gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus the Gospel according to Mark is silent. Matthew has an account from Joseph’s perspective which has angels, wise men bringing gifts from the east, King Herod and an escape into Egypt. Luke’s version is centred on Mary and has the journey to Bethlehem, angels shepherds and the baby in a manger. Finally, John takes the philosophical approach and has no mention of the birth but a weird story about the word and of light.

The story we know is a mash-up of the gospel accounts with some legendary additions, but we have to be careful with making mash-ups of biblical accounts, I could try to combine the stories as seen in Matthew and Luke but that would then become the Gospel of Steve, and the Gospel of Steve is not, and never will be, a book in the Bible. It is good to compare accounts in the Bible, but we only have four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

So what is in the accounts?

The birth in Bethlehem,
The baby laid in the manger,
Angels appear to Shepherds who then visit the newborn,
Wise Men from the east visit first King Herod in Jerusalem, then the child in Bethlehem to whom they leave gifts,
Angels appear in a dream to Joseph to tell him to escape from Herod.

What is not in the gospel accounts:

  • Joseph and Mary travelled alone from Nazareth on foot, with Mary on a donkey due to her advanced pregnancy. It was far more likely they would have travelled as part of a group as a safety precaution as bandits and robbers were active in the area. Mary is more likely to have travelled on a cart.
  • We also do not know that there was an inn, or innkeeper. The word translated as inn in Luke’s account is also translated upper room in the same gospel’s account of Jesus sharing his last Passover supper with his disciples.
  • here is no ox, nor ass, nor lamb, nor stable in any gospel account.
  • Some say that the wise men (who are not described as kings, nor is it said there were three of them) arrived about two years after Jesus birth. We do not know this. We assume this from Herod killing the children in Bethlehem under two years old, bet we are not told that the star appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, it could have appeared up to two years before that so that the wise men could have arrived at around the time Jesus was born. We don’t know either way.
  • Following yonder star? Again this is not in the Bible. The Bible says wise men from the east saw the star rise in the east. In order to get to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem, they had to go west. In the opposite direction to the star rather than following it.

There are alternative versions of the Christmas story. One says that Joseph, being from Bethlehem, would have had family in the area, that because the house was crowded and there was no space in the main room, Mary would have given birth in a guest room, probably with a midwife in attendance and surrounded by family. This still fits the gospel account, it just has different legendary additions to the one we are used to hearing. It’s nice to have a different legend, but it is still a legend.

What are we told?

I’m not suggesting we should throw out our stable scenes. There is one in my front window, visible to anyone who walks past as it has been at this time of year for so many years that the thatch is getting thin. But this is about prioritising what Christmas is about. What do the gospel writers say about Jesus?

The child is to be given a name. In fact, there are two names, Jesus, which is the same as the Old Testament name Joshua and means saviour, and Emmanuel, which means God is with us. This child who was not born into a rich or important setting is God living with us and that he is the one who will save people from their sins.

God has come to be with us humans, has lived among us as one of us and understands us and wants to save us. I think that is the thing worth celebrating this Christmas, and not that theatres may or may not be open.

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