The Case of Christmas
What do you have to know about Christmas in order to understand it? Recently, I spoke to the owner of a shop about understanding Christmas. We tended to agree that to many people in the America’s, it has boiled down to a celebration with lots of decorations, lights and ornaments. There is a heavy dose of gift giving and parties and, to a more serious crowd, perhaps going to church. At the mention of church, the shop-owner chuckled and said, “Yes, maybe!”
However, to you the reader, is there more to Christmas than the rather empty cupboard I have outlined, or is that about it? If nothing else, it is hoped that there are those who want to know more about Christmas than the bare essentials. And, yes, to expand your understanding even beyond what Christmas and Christmas Eve services leave you with.
As we dig into the story of Christmas, you will find that those who were there when it happened and those who wrote about it, at the time they did not fully realize what was taking place. You see, Mary and Joseph as well as the chief priests in Jerusalem were skeptical about what they were told. We’ll say more about that in a few pages. The point is that not everyone was ready right away for what Christmas was all about. And as often as you have decorated and prepared for Christmas, perhaps you still find yourself at that point—what does it really mean?
You may realize as you are reading that you have been led to a better understanding of Christmas. You’re in good company. You will notice that Mary and Joseph, for example, grew in their confidence about what God was doing. There were others who did not. Rather, they would intensify their opposition to God’s activities in Bethlehem. Yet now as then, Christmas calls for a conclusion about what God is up to. It asks, if you will, for an individual verdict regarding God’s greatest gift to mankind. It’s my desire that this Christmas, you will discover the child of Bethlehem as God’s gift to you.
The Background of the Story
The background of a literary product such as a biography or story can be quite different from the background for a photograph or film production. For example, if you are standing on the coast of California, taking in a dazzling sunset, you might want to catch the rigging of a graceful sailboat or branches of a coastal cypress in the foreground. These add to the beauty of the sunset in that you are taking in more than color. The background (or foreground) can add a fuller meaning of the primary subject.
So, when we speak of the background of Christmas, we are bringing in facts and detail that will enhance the subject. We want to add more depth and significance to the story. We also want to intensify the meaning of what Christmas should and can be in an age that often sees the journey as the main event rather than the destination. That means we can get all caught up in preparing for Christmas that we are happy to just make it through without running out of either time or money. New Year’s Day may come as a welcome relief from the overload of people and activities associated with what was going on just a week earlier.
What, then, are some of the items we can consider as “background” to the Christmas story? The main event at Christmas is easily identified: It is the coming of the Christ-Child, the promised Messiah, into the world. We will consider that part in our last section about Christmas, Why The Son Was Given. Truly, if we miss the point of the story of Christmas, we are forever robbed of the true value of the season. It would be like arriving to hear a noted speaker just in time to see the exit doors open as the audience walks out. We received the invitation, but missed the performance. As you read on, you won’t miss the main event!
Of course, there are many supporting individuals that are part of the background. What may surprise you, though, is that of the four authors who wrote about the life and teaching of the main character, Jesus, each one has selected people that fit best into the picture they were trying to paint for us. And, as a matter of fact, two of these writers don’t even mention the events that make up the Christmas story. We will try to sort out some of these differences with you and provide an explanation for some of those differences.
Each gospel writer came to the task of writing the story of Jesus from a different personal history, and appealing to the special audience he was intending to reach. Remember that the great Apostle Paul, who carried the Christian message to much of the Roman world, died before all of the gospels were written. Most of the churches that the gospels were directed to were already thriving by the time they received the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Thus, not only did the authors have different perspectives, there were cultural and regional issues in play that became part of the unseen background for each gospel. Looking at these will help us see why, for example, only Matthew mentions the Magi (the wise men) and only Luke mentions Bethlehem’s shepherds. There are good reasons for both.
By taking this approach, we will have a more complete picture of the Christmas story. That will include a discussion about the two gospels that omit any mention of the events that took place in Bethlehem. It will involve each gospel story filling in the picture of the One that God promised to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We’ll begin drawing the “big” picture about Christmas with the gospel of Mark.
Next: The Reporters: Mark’s Story