With Thanksgiving only days away, nativity scenes are springing up in stores, churches and front yards everywhere. Christians love to celebrate the birth of the Christ child. As we await yet another Christmas, we sing of a babe in a manger, a cold winter’s night, three kings from the Orient bearing gifts and shepherds tending their flocks. It’s one of the most beautiful stories in the bible, especially eloquently told in the Gospel of Luke. Every year the story is reenacted in many churches by little angels with tinsel halos and wise men in quilted bathrobes. But is it true? Did it really happen on a cold winter’s night? Were the shepherds really tending young lambs? Did the Magi really follow a yonder star? Probably not.
We love to tell the Christmas story within an hour or so. Almost simultaneously a bright star shone in the night sky, a heavenly chorus of angels sang, Mary’s time to be delivered came, the Magi arrived bearing gifts and shepherds stood near the stable with their lambs. In fact, it probably happened over a much longer period of time, nowhere near December 25. Let’s look at the time of year baby lambs are born, what may have occurred in the sky over Bethlehem, and when the wise men from the East probably arrived. Let’s see when Jesus really was born and what the circumstances of His birth might have been.
Christmas may have been set at December 25 in an effort to outweigh the pagan celebration of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to December 23. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it ‘the best of days. Christmas, also a time to worship a deity (this time a Christian one), a time to feast, party and exchange gifts, became an effective counterpoint to the pagan ritual, creating a new, fully Christian holiday.
There are no baby lambs on cold, dark winter nights. Baby lambs are born in the spring when the temperature is mild and the grass is fresh and green. They are commonly referred to as ‘spring lambs,’ even today. Along with other historical data, it appears quite conclusively that Jesus was born in the spring, probably April or May. Mary would have needed nothing warmer that her blue veil and the baby Jesus would have entered the world on a mild night with the earth alive with the newness of spring.
Astronomers and theologians have long tried to ascertain what the Christmas star was, and there are still no definitive answers. Many believe it to have been an extremely bright comet, yet this theory seems to fail since a comet streaks through the sky in seconds. Many believe it to have been a rare confluence of planets that created the appearance of an unusually bright star. Assuming that there was some astronomical event at the time of Jesus’ birth, we have come to refer to it as the Star of Bethlehem. There are those who argue, with admittedly good reason, that the assumption is wrong and that we should not try to do historical astronomy with the birth narratives in the Gospels. In any case, we simple do not know.
In the second chapter of the of Matthew it says that the Magi arrived when Jesus was a little child. Mary was in their home with the child who might have been anywhere from nine or ten month old to age three of four. This would have given the three wise men time to have made the long trek from Persia or somewhere in the East. Mary could not have waited in the stable while they journeyed over ‘field and fountain, moor and mountain’ for that length of time
So, the Christmas story cannot be told in an hour, it cannot be condensed to less than a year or so, it cannot be fully explained and it could not possibly have occurred in December. Yet none of this detracts from our celebration of the birth of Christ, the joyous carols and feasting, the exchanging of gifts and the peace and good will of the season. Christmas is in the hearts and minds of believers and meant to be understood with a sense of awe and wonder. As we approach Advent, may everyone experience once again the true meaning of Christmas. You might also like to read:
- Broad Brook Bible Study Examiner, Grace Dooley
- Daily Bible Guide
- Growing in Christ
- Bible Study Tools Online
- The Jesus Walk Bible Study Series