Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
No doubt all of us have traditions that we have been engaging in all month. Lots of areas of our lives have traditions and little rituals, but for many Christmas traditions tend to hold a special place. There are a lot of Christmas traditions, but one that I know a lot of people have are watching specific Christmas movies each year. There are a lot of candidates. For some it is the coming of age movie A Christmas Story. For others it might be the more recent Elf, and for those who like to go against the grain maybe Die Hard is their Christmas movie of choice. However, probably the most classic of Christmas favorites is it’s a Wonderful Life. The review aggregator website, rotten tomatoes, gives a critical consensus that sums up what a lot of people likely feel about the movie. It states: “The holiday classic to define all holiday classics, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of a handful of films worth an annual viewing.”
That is no doubt true for many today, and I am sure if we surveyed the room, more than one of you has likely watched the movie sometime in the past month (or you will in the next few days). It’s a Wonderful Life does seem to be the quintessential holiday movie, but that has not always been true. The ascendency to classic status is far more recent. The movie was released in 1946 to a very mixed critical reception. It also was a box office bomb. It’s a Wonderful Life seemed to be destined to obscurity, but a clerical error in 1974 accidently prevented the copyright from being renewed and it entered the public domain. This meant that it could be shown royalty free and starting in 1976 it became a go-to for local TV stations looking to fill hours of airtime for as cheaply as possible on the days around Christmas. This meant that through the late 70’s and into the 1980s lots of people got exposed to It’s a Wonderful Life, and it allowed this once forgotten move that was regarded as a failure to get a glow-up into a Christmas classic.
Today it is remembered as a Christmas classic and that it has ALWAYS been one of the Christmas classics. Yet, for thirty years it is was a mostly unknown movie. Often the things we think of or remember as traditions are not quite as old as we think we are. For instance, It’s a Wonderful Life is a 76 year old movie, but it has only been considered a true Christmas classic for 40 or so years. This is also true for the story of Christmas itself and our understanding of Jesus’ birth is more recent than we think. Between countless Christmas pageants, children’s books, sermons, and other kinds of mediums we have likely heard the Christmas story, the story of Jesus’ birth, many times. Yet, if were to travel back in time to the 1500s, 1200s, or even earlier the story we would tell to Christians of that era would be completely new, full of details foreign to them. The story we most commonly consider the Christmas story is not necessarily the same story that the Bible tells.
Only two of the four gospels even mention the birth of Jesus. We read the entirety of what the gospel of Matthew says about the birth of Jesus in this morning’s scripture reading. You might have noticed that the majority of this morning’s scripture is actually about an angelic vision. The entirety of what Matthew writes about Jesus’ birth is actually two sentences in verse 25: “But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”
That is it. That is all this gospel records. Last night we read the account from Luke, and while it records more detail like a birth in Bethlehem, Jesus being placed in a manager, and angels visiting shepherds there are a lot of details that have been added to the story. There are some fairly basic assumptions we hold about the Christmas story that in the grand scheme of things are fairly recent additions.
For instance, we often picture Mary riding into Bethlehem on a donkey, who was then present for the birth of Jesus. However, there is not a single mention of a donkey in the Biblical account. Even if there was a donkey, Mary would not have rode on it. It was social custom at that time that the man would have been the one to mount an animal, and Mary would have had to walk-even if pregnant. If Mary needed was unable to walk because of pregnancy, then riding a donkey would not have really been an improvement. If there was a true need to keep Mary off her feet they probably would have used a cart. However, there is little reason to assume they just did not walk. From Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 70 miles and was considered to be about a 3 day journey. The whole idea of a donkey entered into our narrative because of artistic expression. Zechariah 9:9 makes reference of the messiah being carried by a donkey, which is why Jesus rode one on Palm Sunday. Somewhere along the line an artist liked the symmetry of a donkey also carrying Jesus before birth and it became the standard.
Another aspect of the story that might seem iconic, is the image of Joseph and a very pregnant Mary coming into Bethlehem trying to find a place because the baby is about to be born. In this search he is told by an innkeeper that there is no room in the inn, but the innkeeper has pity on them and lets them use the stable. There is no mention of an innkeeper in the bible and there is also not any mention of a stable. What the bible does state in Luke chapter 2:7 is that Jesus wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. The idea of a stable came from enlightenment era European Christians reading the story and placing it in their context. They read Jesus was placed in a manger, and a manger would be in a stable so that is where Jesus must have been born. This makes sense from a European perspective where wood is plentiful, but in the ancient Middle East often caves were used to store animals safely from the elements. Wood was not as plentiful in ancient Israel, and the timber available would not have been used just for animals. So in the very least, they would have been given shelter in a cave not in a wooden stable as we often picture it. If you go to Bethlehem today and visit the church of the nativity is built on the spot that ancient tradition remembers as where Jesus was born, and you will actually go down into a cave.
However, it is also feasible that she gave birth in a house in the great room. It was not uncommon to bring necessary animals into the house, especially in poorer or urban settings. There is nothing in the actual story that would prevent this from being true. Which is why there is not an inn keeper. The bible never once mentions an inn keeper, and it is highly likely that Mary and Joseph did not go to an inn, especially one that exist in the way we picture them. Up until the modern era, the most common forms of guest lodging were common rooms, this is why when the King James translation was made the word inn was used. However, this is not the best translation of the word especially in modern English. This is why in most modern translations instead of stating there was no room in the inn, it will state there is no room in the guest room. Remember, Bethlehem was where Joseph was from. He had family living there. It would stand to reason that he would certainly have stayed with them before paying for a room.
These extra details have crept into the Christmas story for several reasons. They have arisen from cultural differences, and reading the scripture from a different context than which it was written or they have risen because language is a tricky, constantly evolving thing and changes in word usage can impact the understanding. I think these extra details, these extra embellishments have also crept into our understanding because it makes for a more dramatic story. The image of a very pregnant Mary on a donkey coming into Bethlehem while a frantic Joseph tries to find any safe place before it is too late, is a lot more compelling then Mary and Joseph being in a house full of relatives when the time comes. Perhaps over the past few generations we have allowed the celebration of Christmas to balloon into a massive cultural event so we want the story to be suitably big in scale of drama to fit.
Of course we also go the opposite way as well. Instead of adding details to make it more dramatic we can add details to make it more serene and peaceful. Often when we picture the birth of Jesus we picture nativity scenes and Christmas cards that have an array of people and animals all looking at a perfectly sleeping, quiet baby. These still lives practically exude quiet contentment. Our Christmas carols also add to this effect with lines like “Silent night, holy night all is calm all is bright” or from Away in a Manger, “The cattle are lowing , the baby awake, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”
Friends, like many of you, I have been blessed to be present at the birth of a child and they are not silent affairs. The birth of Jesus would not have been any different, and despite what the song says I am fairly confident that the baby Jesus cried. In our modern era, Christmas comes at the end of the month that is often a whirlwind of activity. It is often a time where we find ourselves more frazzled and it is a time when emotionally we can become more drained and raw. Given that it makes sense that we are so drawn to the idea of the birth of Jesus as a quiet moment of perfect peace and love, because that is the kind of scene that our tired bodies and worn souls want to step into and just rest a while.
Today, we do celebrate the birth of our savior. Like all births there were certainly moments of drama, and like all births there were certainly perfect, peaceful moments. However, the birth of Jesus was almost certainly not as dramatic or as serene as we like to imagine it. In fact, the birth of Jesus was so ordinary that, as we read, in the gospel of Matthew it is recorded in only two sentences. In the entire birth narrative found in the gospels, a group of angels appearing to shepherds is really the only thing that really sets the birth of Jesus apart. While that is certainly an event of note, we have gone to great lengths to make the story of Jesus birth to be something bigger or different than it is. In doing so we run the risk of missing the real miracle present here. The birth of Jesus was not that much different than most other births, and that is the miracle. It is a miracle because Jesus was not, is not, like most other people. He is Emmanuel, God with us, and he came into our world just like us. The son of God born into the world, just like every other person has been born into the world. Sure, God celebrated a bit by having angels announce the birth, but the announcement was made to some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the community of Bethlehem.
The miracle of Christmas is that God came to be with us by being among us and being like us. Because it is only as one of us that Jesus was able to eventually save us. That my brothers and sisters, is a miracle worth celebrating. So may we resist the temptation to pump extra drama into our understanding of Christmas. May we simply celebrate Christmas without the extra embellishments, because honestly the story of Jesus does not need them. The birth of Jesus does not have to be more than it is because Jesus being born in the simplest and most ordinary of ways does not change the fact that the baby born in Bethlehem would grow to be the messiah who hung on a cross and changed everything. That alone is worth celebrating.