For years, we’ve been told through movies and television that Christmas is about “giving” or “family.” In one classic film, Santa Claus even declares that it’s not a day, but a “frame of mind.” Whatever that means, it surely bears some connection to the same idea of love and charity. And if we’re talking about Christmas in the modern sense, I suppose it may be true. But the secular Christmas – a holiday of food and games, trees and lights, elves and reindeer, and “Home Alone” – still exists entirely in the shadow of something else. No matter how much it changes, the echoes of religion remain. (It’s literally in the name.) But the Charlie Brown Christmas special is virtually the only Hollywood production to ever recognize the truth.
I’m not here to convince anyone that Christmas is about the birth of Christ. We all know that, so it’s a moot point. And there plenty of people who reject the religious side and still choose to celebrate the gift-giving, fun, and togetherness. But I’m more concerned here with the odd preference we have – and by “we,” I mean anyone who does celebrate the birth of Christ – for a watered-down, commercialized myth over the true Christmas, and what it means for professing or potential believers.
Consider the popular story that we see represented every year in nativity scenes. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, but Mary goes into labor as they arrive. Joseph looks desperately for a place to stay, but alas! No innkeeper will admit them; all of the rooms are taken. One kind man offers his stable instead, and baby Jesus is delivered there among the farm animals. The stable is then visited by humble shepherds and three wise men from afar. The angels sing and the little drummer boy plays “rum-pum-pum-pum.”
Unfortunately, half the story is made up and the “reason for the season” is obscured in a sort of fairy tale. But even the average churchgoer accepts this because it’s familiar and comfortable. Just look at the baby Jesus! He’s so cute! Who cares if the details are correct? The important thing is that we celebrate his birth. And to some extent, that’s true. But why do we celebrate his birth? Is it because we like the story? Is it just for tradition’s sake? Or is it because we understand the reason for his coming and want to share the good news with the world?
If it’s the latter, we should dispense with childish fancies and focus on the truth. Certainly, we shouldn’t condemn people for believing popular myths; but that doesn’t mean we should promulgate them. Jesus was “the way, the truth, and the life.” So if it’s not true, why do we teach it to our kids and our congregations? Why do we let them learn the story from cartoons without ever sharing a fuller and more accurate account? If we’re willing to compromise on the historical details, we might compromise on the spiritual ones… and that’s where we start to lose the true meaning of Christmas altogether.
So what do we really know about Christmas? Let’s start with a few simple questions.
Was Mary in labor as they neared Bethlehem or did she go into labor as soon as they arrived? Answer: neither. She went into labor while she was there. It makes perfect sense, if you think about it: she wouldn’t likely have been traveling so near her due date. And the idea of reaching Bethlehem just as she went into labor is obviously a dramatization. She and Joseph may have been there for weeks or months first.
Why did the innkeepers refuse Joseph and Mary? Answer: they didn’t. No innkeeper ever plays into the story. The Greek word for “inn” just means “guest room” and they might well have been staying with relatives. All we know is that Mary put her newborn baby in a manger because the guest room was too small or crowded. They might have stayed on the ground floor with the animals, or they might have moved there to accommodate the delivery. But no one turned them away.
Was Jesus actually born on December 25th or the night of December 24th? Answer: neither, for all we know. No date is given. The only indication as to the time of year is that shepherds were keeping sheep in the fields, which suggests a warmer season. We don’t even know if Jesus arrived after dark, because the shepherds were told that he was “born this day in the city of David.”
Who saw the angel at the manger? Answer: nobody. The only angels in the story appear to the shepherds in the field. That doesn’t mean that there were no angels at the manger. But if nobody saw them, what difference does it make? There could’ve been invisible angels at my birth. So while I’m sure they had more interest in the birth of God’s son, I’m not prepared to make authoritative statements on their attendance at the manger.
How many kinds of animals were in the stable? Answer: no clue. There might have been oxen, donkeys, or both. Again, no animals – not even sheep – are ever mentioned there. We can reasonably assume that some animal (if only their own) kept them company, but we don’t know how many; nor can we know if there was any stable or separate structure at all.
How many wise men were there? Answer: more than one. They’re called wise men (the plural magi in Greek). There might have been two lone travelers; there might have been ten with a caravan. (In some eastern traditions, there are twelve.) There could’ve been “three wise men” as everyone assumes, but this idea comes only from the gifts mentioned: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is no mention of their numbers, and certainly nothing of the later tradition that calls them Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.
Did the wise men arrive at the manger before or after the shepherds? Answer: the wise men never came to the manger. King Herod directed them to Bethlehem after Jesus was already born. They came to Joseph and Mary’s house, probably months later. And Herod ordered the murder of every baby younger than two, which suggests that Jesus was a toddler by the time the wise men saw him.
Oh, and there was no little drummer boy. Sorry, kids, that’s just a song. (But I assume most of you knew that.)
My point in all of this is that we may not know as much about the story of Christ as we think. And too many of us resist the truth because we prefer the popular version that we’re familiar with. But Christians should seek the truth in all things, great or small. It’s far better that we correct our own errors than let cynics and non-believers do it. Otherwise, how can we convince the world of the Gospel? How can we even be sure that we believe in the right things, if we can’t accept the truth about shepherds and donkeys? We should never be so attached to an idea that we continue clinging to it for old time’s sake when we know that it’s wrong.
There’s a great old John Wayne flick in which a reporter learns the boring truth about a famous killing and promptly states his intentions to ignore the truth and “print the legend.” His only interest was selling papers. But we shouldn’t care so much about what’s popular, comfortable, or even nice. We should care about the truth, especially in matters of faith. Even those who don’t believe the “religious” truth about Christmas can be honest about what it actually teaches. We shouldn’t misrepresent the story itself.
So what is the Christmas story? On some very basic level, everyone understands that Christ came to show God’s love for mankind. But if we ask how, the message becomes confused. We all want to believe that God loves us. We all like babies. (Well, most of us.) We appreciate the humility of the manger scene for bringing God “down to our level.” We’re stirred by the thought of the divine becoming human and walking among us, perhaps even to the point of giving Himself as a sacrifice. But Christmas – like Christianity – becomes rather schmaltzy and superficial if we don’t understand or emphasize the reason for the coming or the sacrifice.
One of the richest women in the world has said (and I might be paraphrasing here) that Jesus came not as our only way to God, but so that he could “show us how to be.” But is that the Christian message? Did Jesus come primarily to be an example? For the answer, we should turn to Jesus himself.
According to Jesus, he didn’t come to overturn the Old Testament – as we so often hear – but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17) by obeying the Law and accomplishing all that the prophets said he would. For what purpose? So that he might seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). How would he seek them? By bearing witness to the truth (John 18:37) and preaching the good news of God’s kingdom (Luke 4:43). And how would he save them? By giving his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28) in order that we might have life abundantly (John 10:10). In what way? By saving the world through himself, rather than judging or condemning them (John 3:17; 12:47). To what earthly end? To reveal the truth to the “blind” and conceal it from those who only “see” what they want (John 9:39); to send fire on the earth (Luke 12:49) by inevitably producing division and persecution, rather than peace (Matt 10:34).
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Jesus wanted to start a war; but the world’s reaction to his coming would be to do it themselves. Everybody knows the old King James passage from Luke 2:14: “peace on earth, good will toward men” (also heard in at least one classic Christmas song, “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day”). But in the original Greek, it actually says something like “peace among those with whom he is pleased” (to quote the ESV). In other words, the angels spoke of an inner peace that Christians should have and share with the rest of the world. We were never told to expect world peace and in fact should expect the opposite. That much has certainly proven true.
And what of the claim that Jesus came to be a good example? He lived a sinless life (1 Pet. 2:22) and is therefore our greatest role model. He even told his disciples to follow his example in serving others (John 13:15). But that doesn’t mean it was the reason he came, and his own mission statement says otherwise. No, he set an example because he came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) – not the other way around. It’s true that he laid aside his glory and thus set the ultimate example of sacrificial love and obedience to God by dying in our place (Phil. 2:5-8). It’s true that he taught us how to show perfect forgiveness by first forgiving us (Col. 3:13). But he also showed us how to suffer for God’s will by suffering to save us (1 Pet. 2:21) – hardly the feel-good fluff that Hollywood sells.
Christ died for us while we were sinners (Rom. 5:8). In the Old Testament, God showed His hatred for sin by demanding payment in the shedding of blood (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22); then He came in the flesh and shed His own (Acts 20:28) to redeem His people (Eph. 1:7). He met His own demands on the cross (Col. 2:14) so that we might have peace with Him (Col. 1:20). If we accept this gift of grace by faith, we can be justified in the heavenly court of law (Rom. 3:20-25) and reconciled to God (Rom. 5:11).
Jesus Christ gave his own life and took the punishment for our sins so that justice could be served and mercy shown at the same time. If we put our faith in Him, the Spirit of God will lead us to repentance from sin. Yes, he is our perfect example, but none of that would matter unless he first saved us. This conflicts with society’s desperate efforts to “update” Jesus for a modern audience. They don’t want the real Jesus because he shines a light on their sin. They prefer the Jesus of their imaginations, who tells us to believe in ourselves and be nice to one another. They want God to do things their way; but they don’t much like the thought of doing anything His way. So they ignore the truths that begin with the Christmas story and end up missing the entire point.
In a fantastic little book called “Hidden Christmas,” author Tim Keller talks about how little we comprehend of the Christmas message: that God Almighty, the Creator of the universe and Judge of all mankind, would take human form and walk among us for any reason – much less to die for our salvation. It’s true that the Crucifixion and Resurrection are the pivotal acts by which Christ secured our salvation. But as Keller points out, the Incarnation of Christ – the moment when God became flesh in his mother’s womb – is the greatest miracle of all. And he didn’t do it to set an example or make us happy. He did it to save our souls by accepting the punishment for our own sins. We misunderstand the story of Christmas because we misunderstand the Gospel. You can’t have one without the other. We celebrate Christmas because he went to the cross. And we celebrate the cross because he came in a manger.
The trees are nice, and the lights are pretty. But none of our secular traditions can diminish the Gospel. They’re just icing on an already perfect cake. We may like more icing than cake, but it’s not very good for us and it eventually buries the part that matters. The more icing we add, the more superficial Christmas becomes. There’s nothing wrong with shopping or decorating or singing “White Christmas.” But when the only purpose is to “make memories”… we’re not really celebrating anything. And now, more than ever, even Christians care more about the parties than the observance of Christ’s birth. I’m left wondering if even they know the truth about Christmas.
A popular family show from the 90’s once depicted the peaceful acceptance of a Jewish family into an Old West town at Christmastime. The Jews obviously didn’t celebrate Christmas, but they respected the spirit of the Gospel. At the end of the episode, the Jewish woman summed up the episode’s theme – that we should all see the good in one another – by pointing to the manger in the town’s nativity scene and saying, “He did.” Naturally, in what was meant to be a moment of inter-faith solidarity, the lead character smiled happily and joined the Christmas caroling already in progress.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? The problem is, that’s not the Christmas message, and it’s a gross misunderstanding of both Jesus and the Gospel. He did not come to teach us how to be nice; he did not “see the good” in everyone. Rather, he saw the sin in all of us and knew that we couldn’t save ourselves. Only by his sacrifice on the cross can we be saved from God’s wrath. That’s not a popular message, but it’s why he came. We shouldn’t forget that; but we should have the humility to confess our own sinfulness and the courage to believe in something that society hates. This is Christianity in a nutshell: that God loved us enough to give His only son so that anyone who believes in him could have eternal life.
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.