When the presentation outshines the present, the gift gets lost in its wrapping paper.
I actually lost a present this year in the piles of wrapping paper from the gifts that had been opened. Amidst bows and boxes, tissue paper and tinsel, a gift from our daughter Joy disappeared and was never found. Admittedly it was small; thankfully it was not expensive, but to me, it’s a perfect metaphor for Christmas as we know and celebrate it. Distracted by the glare of Christmas lights and glitter of tinsel, the advertising appeals and nostalgic narratives that assault us at every turn, we lose the gift meant for us in all the waste of packaging we no longer need.
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I admit it. I am somewhat ambivalent about Christmas. Is it just me or are there others out there that feel the same way? I know there are degrees of ambivalence, but anyone of the Bah-Humbug-Ebenezer-Scrooge persuasion is not ambivalent at all, and there are those who are adamantly opposed to Christmas due to deeply held religious convictions. I am none of the above.
Mostly, I'm talking to myself and allowing you to eavesdrop. Perhaps you've had some of the same thoughts. Then again, maybe you haven't.
Here, as in everything else in life, I try to guide my thinking by applying the rule, "Does the Bible say anything about this subject? If so, what does it say?" Paul wrote Timothy, "If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed." (1 Timothy 4.6) Then he goes on to say in verse 7, "Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths." (ESV) The KJV rendering is literal, "refuse profane and old wives' fables", and other versions range from "stay away from worthless stories that are typical of old women" (NASB) to "have nothing to do with irreverent folklore and silly myths" (Amplified Bible). Over and over, Paul exhorts Timothy to focus on sound doctrine.
Let's see...what doesn't belong in this picture?
It seems to me that this eliminates a lot of what we identify with the Christmas season but which has nothing to do with the Bible: Santa Claus/Father Christmas, elves and reindeer, Christmas trees, mistletoe, lights and parties, and gift exchanges, to mention a few examples of "worthless stories" and "irreverent folklore". If we set all that aside, what’s left of our Christmas season experience? That would leave the part that we, as Bible-believing Christians, call the Christmas Story. It’s told in traditional carols, sermons, nativity scenes and plays in churches and millions of Christmas cards depicting scenes from the “Story”.
We might need to edit the narrative of the Christmas Story itself...
But how much of this Christmas Story itself is just a story? Guided by the actual text of the Bible, I start pruning the dead branches of human tradition from this Christmas Story tree. The three kings are the first ones to exit the manger scene…who says there were three? It makes a convenient number to match the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the greater point is that the magi never saw the stable where Jesus was born. They were in the east and saw His star, and almost two years passed before they got to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, which after all, is where they assumed the King of the Jews would be born. Herod was completely taken off guard by this news and ended up taking measures to eliminate his potential rival. The slaughter of the baby boys under 2 at Bethlehem and Joseph and Mary’s exile in Egypt for a time is the part that gets left out of the usual telling of the Christmas Story. Omitting that part from the nativity plays at church is understandable, but we mustn’t skip over it in our reading and thinking about Jesus’ birth. It’s referred to in other passages in the NT.
...and our Christmas cards
What about all the Christmas cards showing the star leading three solitary men on camels across the desert? First of all, they would have travelled in a caravan with dozens of camels, carrying supplies and providing protection against robbers. Secondly, they didn't need the star to get to the king's palace in Jerusalem. But there they were told that the king they were looking for was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem. It wasn't a big city, but even so, how were they going to find a certain 2-year-old boy among all the others His age? He wasn't a newborn lying in a manger; he was a boy nearly 2 years old living in a house. Now what?
“After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was--the star they had seen in the east! [It wasn’t a star they had followed from the east.] It led them until it came and stopped above the place [not stable] where the child was.
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed beyond measure. [They hadn't come all this way for nothing!] Lesson: when we are truly following God’s direction, He will be sure we have all the information we need by the time we need it, perhaps only at the very last minute, but always in time to do what He has asked of us.
Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling to their knees, they worshipped Him.” (HCSB)
Getting the story on track from the beginning
Let’s rewind the video at this point and go back a couple of years to when Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem. The angel appeared to Mary in Nazareth announcing she had been chosen by God to be the virgin mother of the Messiah; the angel then appeared to Joseph later when he hesitated to take the pregnant Mary as his wife; thirdly, there was the decree of Caesar requiring them to go back to their home territory of Bethlehem to be registered for tax purposes. These key elements of the story are recorded in the gospel, but at this point, we wander off into the land of folklore and fables to fill in the details left out of the Biblical text. The drama builds as Joseph and Mary arrive at night in Bethlehem and desperately search in vain for a room. Door after door is closed in their faces. Mary, after all, is nine months pregnant and has just ridden 80-90 miles on a donkey. Their only recourse is to seek shelter in a smelly stable and lay the newborn baby in a manger. That is unquestionably dramatic! But is it true? Is that the way it really happened?
The donkey and the rude inn-keeper
What if there was no "Little Donkey", as is especially celebrated in the popular British Christmas carol? It's far more likely that Mary walked, like everyone else traveling that road up to Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem. But there's no reason in the Bible to believe Mary and Joseph made the trip at the last minute. Several years ago I read an article by a missionary who had worked in Israel for many years. Knowing the customs of the people, he believes that when Joseph learned they had to return to their family’s home city, he would naturally have gone back "home" and found lodging with his relatives.
How far along was Mary? The Bible says "4And Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee,…to be registered along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant. 6While they were there, the time came for her to give birth." Mary may have well spent the last couple of months of her pregnancy in Bethlehem awaiting the birth of her Son.
"But what about the 'no room in the inn'?" we ask. The missionary pointed out that the word translated "inn" actually means "guestchamber", which is the first meaning of the word given in Strong's Concordance. HCSB translates it "the lodging place". Houses were built so that the cattle were kept on the ground floor and the living quarters were above the stable. They typically had a "guestroom" for travelers passing through or visiting family. With all the family of David’s lineage having to come to Bethlehem for the census, it's not surprising that the guestrooms were full. There may even have been other houses where the stables were converted as temporary lodging places. But it was in the stable that the shepherds were told by angels they would find the Christ child lying in a manger.
And the smelly stable?
I saw an article on the internet this week with an image of the manger scene and referencing the smell the Holy Family had to put up with. But if the stable had been cleared for use as an extra guestroom, there’s no reason to believe that it was smelly and uncomfortable. What about the animals, then? Everyone knows that Jesus was not born on December 25, but most probably in late summer or early fall. The shepherds were watching their flocks in the fields, not sheltering them from the winter cold in the stables. There's no evidence that Joseph and Mary shared their quarters with cows, sheep, goats or a donkey. That does take away a significant portion of the image we have of the nativity scene. After all, what’s a nativity scene without cows, sheep and a donkey? Shepherds were there, of course, but without kings and camels, it’s just not the same. And by the way, there’s no mention of the star shining down on the stable. The choir of angels appearing to the shepherds is the only celestial sign mentioned, and I’d think that’s more impressive than seeing a star.
Having pointed out the unscriptural additions to the Christmas Story, I admit I just suggested some myself. While I do believe they are more consistent with the culture and provide a better understanding of actually happened, they are my words, not the inspired Word of God.
So what's left of Christmas?
So you see why I am ambivalent about this whole Christmas thing, including the traditional telling of the Christmas Story, and not just the festive remnants of pagan traditions, which are nothing more than wrapping paper around the Gift. Reduced to the facts presented in the gospels, the story loses much of its human-interest appeal, but what is left is precisely what is most important about this historical event. In this season, the truly essential is overwhelmed by Santa Clauses and shopping sprees; the true light that came into the world (John 1.9) gets lost in the glare of impressive man-made light displays. The eternal gift gets lost in the packaging.
You may be disappointed, or even offended, that Christmas itself does not excite me like it apparently does most people. But remember what Christmas is, in essence: it's the modern-day version of pagan winter solstice celebrations, with lights, candles and gift-giving, and its traditions vary from culture to culture and hemisphere to hemisphere. It's Christ’s birth that leaves me prostrate in awe before God. That's the story that is unchanging and unchangeable, no matter what century, continent, or cultural background. What really happened in Bethlehem that night is presented to us without any of the distracting packaging we’re used to: John 1.1-3, 14 "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him, and not one thing that has been created was created apart from Him ….The Word became flesh and took up residence among us." In other words, He was "Immanuel", God with us.
In all the baking of cookies, buying of presents, booking of holiday trips, or sending of cards, have we even stopped to meditate on what really happened that night? I doubt it. For one thing, our mortal minds cannot fully comprehend it. Even as I write this, I realize how little I have meditated on the significance of that birth over 2000 years ago. The world is always looking for a pretext to party, and this is a good excuse, and most people never stop to ponder what it's really about. After all they’re celebrating Christmas, and that has nothing to do with Christ’s birth.
The story of this birth is only the first chapter in the earthly life of the God-who-became-Man, which would culminate in His substitutionary death on the cross for us, His resurrection from the dead for our justification (Rom. 4.25), and His exaltation to the position of Judge of the living and the dead. The story of Christ’s birth is the unchanging truth that needs to be proclaimed in every culture, language or latitude. As miraculous as any birth seems to us at the moment a baby takes its first breath and its cry signals its arrival among us, there has never been another baby anything like the One born one night in Bethlehem.
In closing, just to clarify any doubts you might still have: Do I enjoy Christmas? Of course. I’m no Grinch. I enjoy Christmas for what it is: the lights and trees are beautiful, although the silly figures from folklore and fables don’t do much for me. I enjoy giving (and receiving) gifts. I like family gatherings as much as the next person. Abbie makes beautiful floral arrangements using the various elements that are traditional in this season. These are enjoyable experiences. I enjoy Christmas, but I don’t celebrate it.
We need to help others wade through all the layers of packaging that have been wrapped around this unspeakable present
What I celebrate is Christ's birth, and I want to celebrate it for what it is. We sing certain songs at this time of year, not because they are truer in December than they are in August, but because others around us may be more open to hear the real story of how the eternal Word took on human nature and why He did it. We need to help others wade through all the layers of packaging that have been wrapped around this unspeakable present, so they don’t end up losing the gift itself in all the gift wrapping. May they stop to marvel at what it means for the Creator of all things to have been reduced to one microscopic cell in Mary's womb, then two, then four…and nine months later be born as one of us. John wrote that as the Creator, Jesus was the source of all life--"In Him was life", but on that night in Bethlehem, the pre-existent Word was born as a man they named Jesus, and then He had to begin breathing the very air He created in order to live as a man, so He could eventually die as a man. Let us ponder that and worship in wonder.
Now you know why Christmas is not such a big deal for me.