Everybody knows what happened on Christmas. Don't they? Let's take a Christmas quiz.
First, an easy question. Which very old holiday has been celebrated for centuries on December 25 and is characterized by the custom of exchanging gifts? Christmas, right? Wrong. The correct answer: the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Wait, Jesus was not born on December 25?
Here’s our next question. Who is the jovial elderly man of heavy build with a long white beard, whose favorite color is red? This man rides in a chariot pulled by creatures with names like Cracker and Gnasher, and he lives far in the far north in a palace made of icebergs. The fireplace of every home is an especially sacred place, for this man who is said to come down the chimney to visit human beings. It’s Santa Claus, right? Sorry. That’s Thor, the pagan Germanic god of fire. So, Santa Claus comes from an ancient European myth?
Who said this was easy? Here's one you'll know. What green plant with white, pink, or red berries provides a place beneath which friends or foes may exchange a personal greeting (a kiss), a tradition begun by Christians during the celebration of Christmas? Yes! You scored a correct answer! It’s mistletoe! But its roots aren't Christian. It was a plant used in sacred ritual by the ancient Druids of Britain.
What have we learned? Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, and Santa Claus and mistletoe descend from pagan traditions. So what really happened on Christmas? The Bible has our answer.
Tucked away in the first chapter of Luke’s familiar two-chapter Nativity story are details that identify an unparalleled cosmic event. Early in my ministry I heard a camp meeting presentation by Professor Richard Davidson of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary (digitalcommons.andrews.edu/auss/vol44/iss2/1). The biblical chronology embedded in his presentation of the New Testament Nativity narrative and Old Testament priestly process enthralled me. Luke’s clues, we can pinpoint God's most astonishing landmark act in all the plan of salvation. Let's follow Luke's steps:
What happened on Christmas? Almighty God entered the body of a pregnant teen. The Son of God named Wonderful became woundable. The Person of the God family called Counselor was here, soon to submit to a human father's advice. The Mighty God set aside His omnipotence to become mighty dependent. The Prince of Peace became a fetus whose agitated toe jabs would be stroked to calmness like every child of Adam submerged in their mother's womb. What happened? The embryonic Christ child entered this vale of humanity so we would never doubt that the Creator of all knows how to cry. So celebrate! Exchange gifts! The incarnation of Almighty God occurred just this time of year! The preborn Jesus came into the human family by choice so we may have the choice to come into His.
The incarnation of Almighty God occurred just this time of year! The preborn Jesus came into the human family by choice so we may have the choice to come into His.
I am wowed by the incarnation, but if you're still interested in Jesus' birth, you can easily count a normal nine month gestation period from His conception at the end of December to the fourth week of September. That birth week would be consistent with the Nativity story, when shepherds would still be in the fields before autumn rains would have driven them indoors.
Who can blame us for idealizing the only divine-human baby ever born? He had to have had a supermodel mother! In Nativity art every strand of stable straw is aligned with glory rays from hovering angels? And our precious Lord as a baby would never drool. Idyllic views of Christ’s birth can obscure the reality of why He came. What lay ahead wasn’t going to be pretty. So much in Christ’s birth may be seen as prefiguring what would happen at the cross.
Rejected by men: We know that on Crucifixion weekend Jesus was rejected by men. In Pilate’s judgment hall they shouted, “Crucify Him! We have no king but Caesar!” Doesn't that remind us of the rejection at His birth? The innkeeper’s “No Vacancy” sign was an ominous forecast of the jeering rejection at His trial.
The stable cave: The Son of God was born in a stable, but it was no picturesque wooden barn. It was a typical Middle Eastern stable, a hollowed-out stone cave. The only significant difference between that cave and the tomb of a rich man probably relates to the size of the opening and the size of its interior, but Jesus was born to die.
Swaddling clothes: The Saviour Babe was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:12). Modern mothers are beginning to swaddle and carry their infants this way again. Mary's were strips of linen identical to the burial cloths that would be wrapped around a rich man at his death. Considering this, Christ's birth may be seen as a foreshadowing of His death.
Surrounded by animals: In Bethlehem our infant Saviour was surrounded by animals. First century animals in Palestine were used for only two purposes: work and sacrifice. At His birth the One who would sacrifice Himself on Calvary was surrounded by animals regularly sacrificed to typify His own—His birth mirroring His death.
The Manger: Mary laid Jesus in a manger or feeding trough like those found today in Megiddo and other chariot cities of Solomon. Horses reached their muzzles into a hollowed-out stone. At birth and death, Christ was laid to rest in stone.
Josephs: Jesus was watched over at His birth by a Joseph. He was watched over at His death by a Joseph. In this, His birth was a preview of His death.
There’s a story told of a piece of art in a European cathedral, in which the artist depicts Mary at the foot of a hill, down on one knee, arms outstretched. At the top of the hill the sun beams down the grassy grade. On the slope of the hill the Boy Jesus races down the sun-soaked lawn with His arms spread wide. The sun at His back creates a huge shadow in front of the toddler Christ. The shadow is a cross. That picture catches a vital message that the New Testament teaches about Jesus: His whole life was lived in the shadow of the cross.
A torn warm-up suit melted by a distant campfire and stained by countless driveway oil changes hangs in my closet. I hide the grimy garment in the back of the pulpit on Sabbaths I preach this message in church. When it’s time for the application to real life, I pull out the greasy pants and jacket and put them on over my suit while John 19:16-18 is read: “They took Jesus . . . out to . . . ‘The Place of the Skull.’ . . . There they crucified him along with two others, one on each side, with Jesus in the middle” (NET).2 All the Gospel writers state that Jesus was crucified in the middle. Matthew and Luke say: “Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left” (Matthew 27:38, KJV). Late manuscripts of Mark 15:28 mention Christ’s crucifixion between two thieves as fulfilling Isaiah 53:12, the prediction that He would be numbered with us.
What happened on Christmas? The God of Love dressed up in our grimy clothes pulled over His divinity and got in the middle with us. He came all the way down to where we are. He came all the way down and got in the middle of our pain and grief and toil and temptation. His pure life lived, Christ suffered on the cross. His mighty heart burst from the weight of our disloyalty; and by this awesome means the grandest gift of all was purchased. It couldn't have happened without His incarnation. That's what happened on Christmas, and it's surely worth celebrating! Love came down and got in the middle.
David E. Smith is a retired pastor, chaplain, and health educator from Calhoun, Georgia.