The importance of Christmas isn’t Christmas
Imagine that we who live in New Mexico did not celebrate July Fourth as a holiday. The thirteen original colonies celebrated it, but it had not yet gotten to us. It was not national; nobody in the southwest or in the Midwest celebrated it. Two hundred and forty-three years after the declaration of independence and we hadn’t quite gotten it yet.
Christmas is like that: probably celebrated regionally from the middle of the second century but not internationally recognized. About three hundred plus years after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the holiday went international because there was enough ecclesiastical authority to declare it so. We are not sure when it was celebrated at the beginning, but probably not on the twenty-fifth of December.
Here’s another angle: The New Testament contains twenty-seven “books,” actually brief writings ranging in length from one page to forty-two. Of those twenty-seven books, there are four Gospels. Three of them – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are called “synoptic,” meaning that they take the same basic view on the life of Jesus. Yet Mark, the first one written, has no infancy narrative. Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist bursting onto the scene, followed by the appearance of the adult Jesus. The fourth Gospel, John, gives us a theologically-rich introduction to a cosmic Christ, but no birth narrative. Only two mention the birth of Jesus: Matthew and Luke. Paul mentions only that Jesus was born of a woman, to guarantee his humanity, and born a Jew, to guarantee his heritage (Galatians 4:4). There is no concern for Jesus’ birth in the letters of Peter or James or Jude. Matthew has only fifty verses that describe the birth of Jesus; Luke has two chapters filled with beautiful poetry. That’s it for birth stories.
What’s the point? Please understand that I am not trying to be the Grinch who stole Christmas. I’m trying to set it in its proper context. We need to realize that the birth of Jesus was not important to the early church or the early writers. This awareness begs us to look elsewhere for the importance of his life, and here we find ourselves with Paul, the most represented writer in the New Testament. For Paul as, we presume, for most of the early Christians, the important part of Jesus’ story was his sacrificial death, not his birth. The importance of noting his birth grew over the centuries in back-formation from the importance of his death. Ultimately, his death was overshadowed by the event called the resurrection celebrated at Easter or Pascha, the original name for the major festival of the Christian year.
Oh yes, that December twenty-fifth date? The early church celebrated the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb on March twenty-fifth. Nine months later brings us to December twenty-fifth. Christmas is not tied to the winter solstice and its attendant pagan celebrations. It’s tied to his mother. That pagan merriment is an accretion to the festival.
The falderal that swirls around us in this season is grounded in three short chapters out of the entire New Testament. The records in them are not the same: there are no shepherds, for example, in Luke, and Matthew places Jesus’ birth at Nazareth. These chapters are, however, chock full of interpretation based on Old Testament texts, and that’s the reason for their inclusion. The writers embedded Jesus in his heritage. The narratives were crafted to give weight and dimension to the Christian understanding of the importance of Jesus as Messiah, anointed, the Christ anticipated by a portion of the Jewish people. That importance remains and, of course, it remains the ultimate reason for the commemoration.