Some basic questions about Christmas:
1) Christmas has always been celebrated on December 25th ? False. Up until the 4th century, Jesus’ birth was celebrated on January 6– as the Eastern, Orthodox Churches continue to do. In 325 the emperor Constantine– who made Christianity legal throughout his empire– moved Christmas’ observance in the Western Church to December 25, the day of the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, whom he worshiped.
2) How did Mary & Joseph travel to Bethlehem? By donkey? No. There is no mention of any donkey in the gospels. Luke simply tells us that Joseph & Mary went to Bethlehem for the census. Matthew just tells us that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem, but not how they got there.
3) What did the Innkeeper say to Mary & Joseph? Nothing. There is no innkeeper ever mentioned. Luke tells us that after the birth, “… she put him in a simple cloth wrapped like a receiving blanket, and laid him in a feeding trough for cattle, because there was no room for them at the inn.” [Luke 2:7]
4) The angels told the shepherds to go to Bethlehem… True or False? False. “When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see this event that God has made known to us.”” [Luke 2:15] The shepherds decided on their own to go and see what had happened.
5) How many Wise Men were there? What were their names? What gifts did they bring with them? Matthew doesn’t tell us how many Wise Men, or astrologers as our translation calls them, there were. And Matthew doesn’t name them for us. Matthew does tell us that they “… opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” [Matthew 2:11c] That is where the tradition of three Wise Men, or Magi (magicians), or astrologers came from.
Whoever these Magi, these astrologers from the East were, they were motivated by a question – the same as the shepherds: “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews?” [Matthew 2:2] That question motivated them enough to stop what they were doing and look for the answer.
They were studying the night sky; they were watching for the signs of the times as they interpreted them in the movement of the stars and planets and when they saw a special star rising in the night sky, they would have first questioned its meaning. Having decided it foretold the birth of a new ruler of the House of David, 0they began their quest to discover the answer of “where” and “who”. Eventually, the star led them to Jerusalem. They of course went to Herod first, the current ruler, seeking an answer to their question of “where” this new ruler was to be born.
As the story is told, Herod sought the answer from his advisors– “Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, since from you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” [Matthew 2:4-6] Their question answered, the magi continued on their way to Bethlehem, the star again going before them, “… until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay.” [Matthew 2:9]
The magi were motivated by a question… and they journeyed seeking the answer. Note, however, that those who felt they had the answer– Herod’s advisers, the chief priests and religious scholars, did not act on their answer as the Magi had acted on their question. Apparently having the answer was not enough motivation.
Against what seems to be popular reasoning, questions are what lead us deeper into the exploration of our faith and understanding, not certainty. Certainty keeps us sitting back comfortably thinking we have all the answers. Questions make us sit up straight, eyes and ears open; questions make us ponder over what the things happening around us mean; questions make us get up to search for answers. The magi didn’t travel from the East seeking to prove what they thought they already knew. They traveled seeking answers to ‘what is going on here?’ ‘What does this mean?’
When we leave behind our Christmas Card faith and begin to journey through the stories of God; when we stop seeing a sweet and sparkly birth of Jesus as reality; and when we begin asking hard questions about the birth– what is going on here? What does this mean?– why do angels appear to shepherds in the fields and not to royalty?; why does a star became apparent only to Gentile astrologers from Persia and not those supposedly immersed in scripture in Jerusalem?
We stop in the story when we see the kings bow down to worship this newborn baby. We are done with the story when these Eastern Kings return to their own lands and palaces. We close our Hallmark greeting cards with a good feeling and put them away for another year. But Matthew continues with the story just when we are finished with it. This wondrous star does not lead us to Jerusalem, the seat of power and authority, the center of wealth and health and blessing, but instead to Bethlehem of Judea, to the meek, the lowly, the poor, and the oppressed.
God does not come to us where we most expect God to come to us. God shows up in small remote, poor, forsaken, overlooked Bethlehem. This story ends with the weeping of Rachel: “A voice was heard in Ramah sobbing and lamenting loudly: it was Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, for they were no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
This Bible we hold so dear does not look at the world through rose-colored glasses. Matthew shows us where He was born; Matthew shows us the world into which God has come. It is a world in which Nigerian young women and children are kidnaped and sold into slavery. It is world in which children die from curable diseases like malaria and measles and polio; and from diseases for which we have yet to find a cure like cancer, influenza, lupus, asthma, and diabetes. When God broke through the very heavens and came down to us, God came to a world of hunger, a world in which more than 3.4 million people die each year from bad water and poor sanitation, some of whom live in this very country.
The hardest part of this ending Matthew has given us is that he leaves us with no Hallmark greeting card resolution; he leaves us with Rachel weeping for her children.
The wise men were motivated to see what was happening. Herod and the scholars in Jerusalem weren’t so motivated… they weren’t all that interested in what God was doing; they weren’t all that interested in how God was entering our lives to bring about a change in how we live.
If Christmas, if this birth we have just celebrated, hasn’t changed us– hasn’t made us look at the world around us differently; hasn’t made us look hard at how we treat each other publically as a nation, and privately as individuals calling ourselves Christians, then we might be just as blind and shortsighted as Herod’s advisors, the chief priests and religious scholars, the religious insiders– those who thought they had all the answers because they knew their scripture, they knew the stories, and sat back comfortably tightly clutching their answers close to themselves.
What is God doing? What does it mean? We need to ask those questions of ourselves and our leaders. We may never finally answer those questions with certainty for ourselves, but our search, our journey for those answers will lead us to a faith we, our neighbors, and the world about us, desperately need in this coming year.