Our principal sources are the gospels. Matthew’s says one thing, Luke’s another – similar but not exactly the same. Mark says nothing at all about the birth, (and neither do the bits of the New Testament written before the gospels) and John meditates on the meaning rather than the manner. So what did happen and is it really possible to tell? It’s important to remember that the gospel writers weren’t writing mere history, a mere record of events. They were writing with a purpose: they wanted us to see Jesus in a particular way. Try reading Matthew and Luke with that in mind and see if that makes a difference. But if it’s important to think about what the first writers meant by their stories, it’s perhaps more important to think about what they mean to us.
Are these just romantic tales, familiar stories that remind us of childhood, perhaps, and make Christmas one of those times when we can mark the passing of the years and the changing of the seasons? There’s nothing wrong with that, I think, but maybe there’s more. Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of the birth of a child with a history. They set out their genealogies of Jesus – and they are quite different. Matthew traces Jesus’s line back to Abraham, the great Jewish father of faith. Luke, meanwhile, takes Jesus back to Adam, who stands for the beginning of the human race and himself the creation of God. Jesus is a “representative” in both stories, he is in the human line, he is part of the human race, he has a back story if you like. Then, of course, we have to read on and we do that through the lenses that Matthew and Luke provide for us in their opening chapters.
The story of Jesus’s birth has been added to since the gospel times: no mention, for example, of those three kings in the Bible where the visitors are un-numbered magi or astrologers. Similarly, the whole story of Jesus has been added to by the Christian church over the years with doctrine and theology, not all of it helpful (and that’s maybe the biggest understatement I think I may ever have made!). Sometimes it’s difficult through the doctrinal fog of centuries to see this Jesus who was born and lived and died. Nevertheless, the baby who grew to be a man still casts a shadow across those two intervening millennia to attract people to follow him today, millions of us, often falteringly trying to be guided by that same sense of the divine, that same divine heart that people saw in Jesus 2000 years ago, and that made them write those stories in the first place.
What really happened that first Christmas? We can’t know for sure. But that the life that began then, and revealed the divine heart of love then, can still attract people to follow that way today is, I think, something wonderful to celebrate. Happy Christmas.