Christmas Eve will be here soon. A wonderful night when Christians (and even some non-Christians) will gather together in churches around the country, and around the globe, to celebrate the coming of Christ.
In many of those churches, the attendees will celebrate with the traditional Christmas story. You know the one: Mary is in labor, riding into town on a donkey, it’s cold and snowy, all the local inn keepers turn them away, they spend the night in a dirty cave (or barn) where Joseph delivers the baby, he is named Jesus, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and spends the night in a manger full of hay so shepherds and wise men can come and worship him. Yeah! That one…the nativity story that’s not really in the Bible…at least not most of it.
Really. Honest Injun’. Get your Bible out and check. There was no donkey. There was no inn, nor an inn keeper. They’d already been in town for at least a few days, if not weeks, when Jesus was born. And Joseph probably didn’t have much to do with the actual birthing process.
Based on the culture and customs of the time, they were probably staying with some of Joseph’s relatives and, due to the census, it was a packed house. It is likely there were plenty of female relatives on hand to assist with the birth. Because the guest room was full, Joseph, Mary, and the baby, Jesus, were relegated to sleeping out in a common room, near where the animals were kept in the home (also a normal thing back in first century Bethlehem) hence the necessity of putting Jesus in the manger.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to “bah humbug” your Christmas. But I also feel like the Nativity scene most of us grew up thinking was the the “Gospel” truth is just about as real as Santa Claus.
You CAN find a donkey and a cave in the story if you want to stray from the Biblical canon. Do a Google search for The Protoevangelium of James. There’s a donkey and cave in that one. Joseph is also an aging widower and Jesus isn’t so much born as he is delivered via a supernatural, non-surgical, c-section…oh, and Mary was confirmed to be a virgin and remained so until she died. Some of the traditions we celebrate have their roots in extra-biblical books/stories that have long been rejected by the church.
So what’s my point?
I think it would be great to celebrate the story that IS actually in the Bible. It’s a story of brokenness, fear, and shame. It’s also a story of great joy, angelic hosts, heavenly choirs, the birth of a Savior, and it's one that doesn’t need any sensationalism to make it better.
If you want the Biblical Christmas story, here it is (in a nut shell):
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, 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. Today in the town 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.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
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.
Luke 1:26-38 & 2:1-20 (NIV)