For Christians a crucial significance of Christmas is that God is not remote, but has come very close to humans. God’s love for us is so great that he has identified with human beings completely. He has inhabited a human body. Jesus did not come to show God in all his might, conquering men and women. Instead God was born as a baby, making himself helpless and completely dependent on humans for his survival. By making himself one with humans at their weakest, God has created the circumstances in which they can be at one with him.
This is why the stories of Jesus’ birth are so important to Christians. But the stories do create some problems for people trying to understand what actually happened. There are two accounts of Jesus’ birth in the Bible, written about seventy years after it took place. They both attempt to give a historical setting. All the events they describe actually happened (a census, a king called Herod, the appearance of a comet, and so on) but not at the same time.
Most historians think that Jesus was born in 3 or 4 BC. In the sixth century a Romanian monk named Dionysius attempted to calculate the date, and on the basis of his conclusions BC (Before Christ – sometimes expressed as BCE, before the common era) and AD (Anno Domini, ‘the year of the Lord’) are the turning points of Christian calendars. But he probably got it wrong.
Some Christians accept the Bible accounts as straightforwardly accurate, and are content that an explanation must exist for the difficulties.
Some see the truths revealed by the stories as much more important than their historical significance. They find rich meaning in the names given to Jesus (such as Emmanuel, meaning ‘God with us’), and in the symbolism of angels (announcing God’s good news), shepherds (among the poorest), wise men (from non-Jewish religions), and a manger (a sign of humility).
Some focus on how important it was to the writers that the birth of Jesus fulfilled the expectations of the Jewish people of what their long-anticipated leader, the Messiah, would do. The writers Luke and particularly Matthew took great care to stress that the place, time and nature of Jesus’ birth were part of a plan of God from ancient times.
The way these three different approaches deal with the truths of the first Christmas are made clear in the way they approach a significant part of Christian belief known as the virgin birth.
Some Christians accept that an unprecedented miracle took place at the time of Jesus’ conception. The young Mary had never had sexual intercourse, and the baby was created within her because of a remarkable intervention of God the Holy Spirit. This is a straightforward reading of the Bible passage as a literal account. It emphasises its unique and miraculous nature.
Some read the story knowing that the Bible writers had a limited understanding of human reproduction. They deal with the difficulty of coming to terms with such a miracle by stressing the life-transforming truth that within the embryo growing inside Mary all the fullness of God was being brought to birth. The salvation of the world has been brought about entirely because of what God has done, not because of anything that humans have achieved.
Some trace the story back to its Old Testament roots. The prophet Isaiah wrote of a woman who was at that time still a virgin becoming pregnant with a child called Emmanuel. He drew attention to her as a sign that just as the child would grow healthy and moral, the Jewish people could grow healthy and moral if they were obedient to God. Connecting the birth of Jesus with this story was evidence that the salvation of humankind was planned and foreseen centuries before Jesus was born.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
To us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
Where to find it:
About these words:
Seven centuries before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah wrote words that seem to have been utterly fulfilled in the birth and life of Jesus.
And they said…
Philomena Cunk, the birdbrained journalist who is the comedy creation of actress Daiane Morgan:
As the birth neared, Mary and Joseph travelled to O Little Town of Bethlehem, only to discover that the inn theyd booked had no rooms in it. So instead they were put up in a stable. Today that would lead to one red star on Trip Advisor. Back then it led to one big star in the sky, which God put there. Probably so they could see the baby.
Tony Jordan, writer of the BBC serial The Nativity, on the impact that writing the television series had on him:
I’ve always had a faith … I’m not a God-botherer. I don’t go and visit him every Sunday … It’s difficult sometimes to balance your intelligence with blind faith. But I do have a faith … I do believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I do believe he came here to take away our sins. I absolutely do believe that. But there’s loads of little bits all around it that really bug me. So what I’ve done in The Nativity is written a version that I can believe. For the people who watch it who aren’t already sold, who would ridicule a version with square beards, I think I’ve made it accessible … The process has helped me make sense of the birth of someone that I believe in … Before I had lots of niggling. Now I have no doubts … I think it is a thing of beauty.
John Betjeman, poet, 1906 – 1984:
And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me? …
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.
Ralph Sockman, clergyman, 1889-1970:
Christmas renews our youth by stirring up our wonder. The capacity for wonder has been called our most pregnant human faculty, for in it are born our art, our scince, our religion.