My friend Joe, a former Catholic and now atheist, is right. Christmas to a significant degree has been coopted by commercialism. He’s right too that we Christians inserted our traditions/beliefs into the pagan culture of the time. Jesus being born on the 25th of December? Not likely.
But that Jesus was born is rarely in dispute. Josephus a Jewish historian working for the occupying Roman Empire, references Jesus being a troublesome prophet with a following.
Strip away the Hallmark Cards and the angelic choirs and we have the story of a lowly Jew born in an occupied country. Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph were formally married. Joseph an honorable man understood this was a special child (of the Spirit) and married Mary.
By decree of Rome, Joseph and Mary who was ‘great with child’, were forced to travel to Bethlehem for a census and to pay taxes. The story tells us the only place to sleep was in a barn. Amidst the barnyard sounds and smells Mary gave birth to a son and they wrapped the child in rags and placed him in a manger (a feeding trough).
They named the child Joshua (Jesus in the Greek), which means ‘he who saves’. At that same time a rumor circulated that a ‘child would arise from Bethlehem and throw off the yoke of the oppressor’.
Herod, a psychotic puppet king, heard these rumors and decided to murder every male child under two years of age. Joseph and Mary were warned in a dream to flee. They found refuge in Egypt and only returned some years later after Herod had died (Matthew 1: 18 – 2:23).
This is not the sweet story that most of us grew up hearing. We prefer to focus on cherubic angels and exotic Magi.
In time a sanitized religious story was further coopted by commercialism, syrupy movies and songs about ‘dashing through the snow’.
But despite the pagan influences, religious sanitizing and crass commercialism…the power of the story continues to speak…to the longing and brokenness of the human condition.
Imagine. An outlandish story of God’s own child being born homeless, a refugee. Speaking to the very essence of what it means to be human.
Our gift as stated in John 3:16 is ‘that God so loved the world’, that God chose to bring forth a child who would show us how to live, love and forgive.
This child would walk the way of compassion. Would teach us that the road to enlightenment is when we stand with and for the most vulnerable among us. A child who would grow up to say ‘whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me’ (Mathew 25:40).
Such a story has radical implications for the Kings and Corporate Titans of every age. In time the message got him killed.
Yet despite all attempts to divert and dilute the story…it continues to inspire and guide.
On Christmas morning I’ll gather in church and sing the familiar carols. I’ll sit around the dinner table with family and friends.
I’ll remember too that there is so much more to the story.