By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
It doesn’t seem that much to ask. With all the passion, energy, hysteria and hype around Christmas, you’d think there would be some interest in refining our focus on what we were really celebrating.
Frenzied shopping, TV specials and holiday events seem to grab all the headlines and soak up all of our available time and energy.
Christmas has become unbelievably complicated, but my personal bias is that anything that leaves us exhausted and irritable is contrary to the spirit of Christmas.
But what is the “spirit of Christmas”?
We could learn a lot from looking at that first Christmas.
One of many ironies is that the date of Christmas is not even remotely defined in the original texts. In fact every detail we would want to know is neglected.
And it is almost certainly neglected because it was not considered worth noting.
To put it mildly, record keeping – especially for poor families – and even more specifically for births in tiny villages and where the, ahem, legitimacy was in question – was even further from “official” notice or recognition.
As to the famous “star,” a 1991 article in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society by astronomer Colin Humphreys proposed that the fabled star was actually a slow-moving comet, which Chinese observers recorded in 5 B.C.
Scholars also debate the month of Jesus’ birth. In 2008, astronomer Dave Reneke argued that Jesus was born in the summer. The Star of Bethlehem may have been Venus and Jupiter coming together to form a bright light in the sky. Using computer models, Reneke determined that this rare event occurred on June 17, in the year 2 B.C.
Other researchers have claimed that a similar conjunction, this one between Saturn and Jupiter, occurred in October of 7 B.C., making Jesus an autumn baby.
Theologians and historians of the era and culture have also suggested that Jesus was born in the spring, based on the biblical narrative that shepherds were watching over their flocks in the fields outside of town on the night of Jesus’ birth — something they would have done in the spring, not the winter.
Mary, the birth mother of Jesus, was very young – about 13 by most accounts. Joseph, the “father” was older, almost certainly much older. Matthew 1:18-19 describe Joseph as a “righteous man” – clearly NOT a teenager.
If you have seen a Nativity scene from almost any historical period, you will almost certainly observe a full beard on Joseph – not the beard of a teenager.
In fact the most reliable scholars are convinced that Joseph was a widower – with children from his previous marriage. This might explain why Jesus is so often proclaimed as “the son of Mary” and not the “son of Joseph” as would have been the norm in that culture.
If Joseph had actually been a teenager, the couple would have been expected to live with his parents – and certainly would not have fled to Egypt on their own.
We hear nothing in the Bible of Joseph after Jesus is 12, so it is assumed by most scholars that he died around then – as he would have at the average age of a typical male at the time – his mid-forties (while Mary would have been in her mid-twenties).
And yet I love this jumbled, misunderstood, and yes gritty, story precisely because it is such a human story. And every human story is much more dimensional, multi-layered and perhaps even more conflicted than it first appears.
Jesus, at least humanly speaking, was not born into royalty. In fact consider the world he was born into; his parents had a rushed (perhaps even forced, and certainly arranged) marriage under questionable circumstances, death threats at his birth, homeless and in exile as an infant, a fugitive from the law as a child, returning to his home culture as the target of scandal, growing up in the bad part of town (Can anything good come from Nazareth? John 1:46), raised in an ostracized culture with a Roman occupied colony. Even his own family thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21) and he was finally publicly executed for crimes against his own religion and state.
In short, what I like best about Jesus is that he is one of us. He was born into the tumult of a time of oppression and rebellion. All kinds of opportunities were closed to him because of his race and class and religion.
Would anyone of his contemporaries have taken note of him?
Tradition holds that he never married (though some dispute this) but picture how a small town would think of a man who never married, did manual labor and was condemned as a blasphemer by the leaders of his own religion and then executed as a common criminal by the official government?
If Jesus went to school at all, he didn’t do it in Israel (Ann Rice contends that, since he spent most of his childhood in exile, he only went to school in Egypt).
In the culture of the time, it was only the first born sons of the educated who had access to education – and it was only the sons. Everyone in that culture, especially in Jesus’ hometown, knew that Jesus was not formally educated – no son of a common manual laborer would be (Matthew 13:54-55) and a son, by tradition, would follow the trade of his father.
The accretions of time and traditions of contemporary Christmas would be unrecognizable – if not blasphemous to the early Christians.
The stillness of a frigid coal-black sky filled with the light of gleaming stars, in the after-glow of a freshly born baby is far from the bleating noise about the non-stop “war on Christmas” promulgated by cable news and talk radio as they breathlessly prate about the color of Starbucks’ cups or the term “Happy holidays” on cards or banners.
Did they not notice, or do they not even care that there actually are many holidays from late November to early January?
From Thanksgiving to Hanukkah to New Year’s Eve, it is a season of holidays – not just one.
From Black Friday to White Christmas, it is all a distraction. Love them or hate them, the discounts, services and celebrations have little or even nothing to do with the original Christmas.
I’ve been to more than my share of these Christmas and other holiday events, concerts and services.
I’ve participated in a few, and walked out of some.
Few, if any, have matched the searing simplicity and stark beauty of a star-filled sky on a clear and frigid evening, when, to quote a famous Christmas song, “every soul feels its worth.”
Yes, this is a holiday season, there seem to be holiday banners, gatherings and proclamations for every mood, culture or personality.
Whatever you celebrate – or even if you don’t – we wish you the best.
“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” – Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!