The Politics of the First Christmas
Jesus of Nazareth was really born two thousand years ago. It is a historical fact marred with politics and violence. Putting aside the pageantry of our Christmas story can actually help us to understand the reality and politics of the First Christmas.
The True Christmas story.
Today we really don’t know the date of Jesus Christ’s birth. It is believed that the early Church didn’t much care what the date was. Specific dates are something valued more by our culture than their culture. The best estimation of Mary’s pregnancy with her son is probably around 4 B.C. and very unlikely to have occurred in December.
The ancient Romans celebrated a holiday called Saturnalia that was celebrated for an entire week culminating on December 25th. The holiday was a pagan festival filled with alcohol, gluttony, sex, orgy and rape with the occasional human sacrifice. It was a non-stop party for the week leading up to the 25th.
In the Fourth Century, the Church began transforming the Saturnalia holiday into a Christian tradition. Christian leaders dubbed December 25, Jesus Christ’s birthday. At first, many Christian converts continued with the established customs of the holiday. Because of this, the first American Pilgrims of Massachusetts outlawed the celebration of Christmas as it had not historically been a Christian celebration. But over time, it was culturally accepted as a Christian Holiday.
The Occupation of Israel
By the time Joseph and Mary had been born, the Jewish people had been held in captivity for over 500 years. In approximately 63 B.C., the Romans became the occupying force in Israel.
However, the Romans were wiser than previous occupiers of the Jews. Rather than having Romans oversee the Jews directly, they developed a system that is in many ways similar to our system of federalism. They developed two separate government systems with one subject to the other. The Roman government was akin to the larger federal government over the entire Empire. However, a local government was put into power over the Jews. The local government was actually manned by other Jews. This is sort of what the British did with the American colonists by putting loyal Tories in charge as governors, for example.
While Caesar was in charge of Rome, King Herod was put in charge of the Jews. Herod was a brutal dictator. Caesar once remarked that it was safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. Herod had previously killed a son that he feared was plotting against him. Herod also killed a wife and her entire family who he worried would betray him. This is the context that Herod ruled in.
When Herod heard that the King of the Jews had been born he was very frightened. The prophet Isaiah had predicted that a child would be born and he would “preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives.” All Jews awaited the arrival of the King of the Jews that would free and vindicate them. Herod was no doubt always on guard against this type of political enemy.
An awkward conversation.
Caesar Augustus had declared that the entire Roman Empire would submit to a Census. The Census was taken in someone’s homeland. For the Jews and Joseph in particular, this meant that he must travel back to his homeland. Joseph was from Bethlehem, the “City of David.”
It isn’t difficult to imagine the stress he was under. Joseph had recently had an awkward conversation with his fiancé, Mary where she had confessed to him that she was pregnant. But she swore she hadn’t had sex. The Gospel of Matthew makes Joseph out to be a pretty good guy, saying that he had decided to quickly and quietly divorce her. The alternative would have been to make a big scene which could have led to Mary’s death.
But an Angel visited Joseph in dream. The Angel stated, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So Joseph did as instructed.
Taking a trip by foot with a pregnant wife in her third trimester must have been difficult for both Mary and Joseph. I took a trip with my pregnant wife in a car, I can’t imagine if we had been forced to use a donkey.
Upon arrival in Bethlehem, Joseph was probably trying to hide his embarrassment because although he and his wife knew of the Immaculate Conception, his friends and family were still probably calling the young Mary some very nasty names due to her pre-marital pregnancy.
It is important to note that like so many great men in our own society such as – Alexander Hamilton, Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, Jesus’ birth was not ideal. In today’s America a sixteen year old girl that became pregnant out of wedlock would be encouraged to quietly abort her child. Mary did not. There is no mention of Mary trying to escape a responsibility she wasn’t ready for.
I am a man and can therefore never quite understand what it is like for a woman to go through the vulnerability of a pregnancy that breaks such social norms at a young age. It couldn’t have been easy but Mary made a choice that Americans would now call difficult, without too much difficulty.
The Birth of the King.
Joseph and Mary were set to travel back to Bethlehem. They likely arrived in Bethlehem days before the actual birth of Jesus. It is a matter of dispute as to where Joseph and Mary were staying when the birth of her baby actually began.
Many people believe that the Inn owners turned the pregnant couple away but allowed them to stay in the stable. Many scholars believe that Joseph was likely staying with family but that the guest room was full, possibly with the elderly, so the couple stayed on the first floor of a family member’s home. Many early Israeli homes actually had stables on the first floor and many people brought their animals inside during cold nights. Either of these explanations would explain the manger Mary used for the newborn Jesus.
It was on that day or night that probably occurred in either March or August that Jesus was born. Mary had already been instructed that his name would be “Jesus.” It is remarkable to look back and see the faith of one sixteen year old girl throughout the gospel accounts.
Shepherds living in fields nearby were soon visited by an Angel of God. I like to think the shepherds were visited the same night as the birth but that may be romanticism taking hold.
The Angel that visited the shepherds was likely Gabriel the Archangel but we do not know for sure. Obviously, the sight of an angel would terrify anyone who witnessed it. That is exactly how the physician, Luke recounts the story saying “and they were terrified.” But the angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. For, today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
As a Jew living in occupation and waiting for your spiritual and political savior to come, this must have been a great comfort and the shepherds likely would have immediately rushed into town to worship the King. Obviously they arrived pretty quickly, because Jesus was still in the manger.
Luke writes that, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
The “Magi” or the “Wise men” likely traveled for months if not years to visit Jesus. On the way, the spoke with Herod, who cleverly told them to stop back in on their way back through. But the Wise men proved pretty wise when they followed an Angel’s instructions to not go back to see Herod.
When Herod figured out that he had been duped, he was outraged. The King was so bent on making sure that this King of prophesy from Bethlehem wasn’t raised up that he ordered all male babies under the age of two years old to be murdered. That probably meant between 20 and 30 male babies that were killed by sword. But it should be noted that some believe the females could have been killed as well, as most soldiers wouldn’t have stopped to check for gender, thus doubling the casualties.
Joseph wisely fled to Egypt until King Herod died. With the unrest in Egypt, it is sad to think that those parts of Africa remain as holy as the actual Holy Land.
King of Kings
The gospels report that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature. When he reached the age of thirty, he began his mission as a missionary and activist. He would later be put to death for the radical claims that he made. Jesus claimed that he was in fact, God and the savior the Jews waited upon. He told stated that he was savior of the world and that his death would act as a perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of all of humanity.
It has been said that Jesus was either a liar, lunatic, legend or Lord.
I believe he is Lord. Most uphold him as a moral man who would not lie. There is no evidence to suggest that he was lying, unless you take his statements at lies. I believe that is a personal determination you have to make. If you believe he was a fraud, how do you explain raising the dead, feeding the five thousand, walking on water? These are more than mere parlor tricks and this was in 30 A.D.
Likewise, there is no evidence that he was a lunatic or that anyone believed him to be one, unless you take his statements to be lunacy.
Finally, I believe him to be much more than legend. Paul tells us that over 500 people saw Jesus alive after his public death and burial. That was only one of twelve or so public sightings. All of the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus, and if you believe they were in search of notoriety – think again, they all died violent deaths (except for John). It has been said that there is more historical evidence of Jesus’ life and ministry than most of the ancient historical accounts that we rely on in our history books.
I know myself, and how sinful I am. I believe that God is perfect and that it would be impossible for me to fellowship with a perfect God in my sinful state. If you believe that God is holy and that you are not, it isn’t too much of a leap to believe that there must be atonement for our shortcomings. Accepting Jesus Christ as God is the step God instructs us to take to atone for our sins.