EDITORIAL: A reflection on Christmas
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, December 24, 2011
For many people in contemporary Australia, Christmas is either a holiday season or an occasion for family get-togethers around the giving and receiving of presents, particularly for children.
Behind the superficial understanding of Christmas lies the deeper reality that the festive season celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ whom the overwhelming majority of Australians believe to be not only a true historical figure, but what the Christian faith — from its very beginnings — declares to be both man and God.
The historical evidence for the existence of Jesus comes primarily, but not exclusively, from Christian sources.
Two of the four evangelists, Matthew and Luke, have accounts of the birth of Jesus. Matthew’s account commences with a chronology of Jesus’ ancestors, through King David back to Abraham, to prove to early Jewish Christians that Jesus was truly the “son of David”.
Matthew’s gospel tells how Mary, betrothed to Joseph, was “found to be with child”, and Joseph, “a just man”, intended to separate from her privately to spare her the public humiliation of being pregnant when he was not the natural father.
But an angel came to him in a dream, and told him to take Mary as his wife, as the child was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and was the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, made centuries before: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means God is with us.”
Matthew states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then tells of the journey of the Magi to Jerusalem, where they speak to King Herod, asking for instructions on where to find the infant king of the Jews.
The cunning King sends them on to Bethlehem, and asks them to return to tell him, so that he too might pay homage to the infant king of the Jews. When the Magi return to their country by another route, Herod orders the massacre of every young male child in the district, to destroy the potential rival for the throne.
While some have questioned whether such a massacre took place, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing a little later, portrayed Herod as a paranoid and ruthless king who killed his own mother, several of his sons, and many others, to maintain his grip on power.
The massacre of the innocents, as it is known to Christians, is entirely consistent with what others have told us of Herod.
Luke’s account is quite different. Written for readers who were mainly Greeks and Romans, the prologue of Luke’s gospel, written to Theophilus (a Greek word meaning “lover of God”), says he has written an orderly account of Jesus’ life based on what had previously been written by “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”.
His gospel commences with an account of God’s intervention, through the Angel Gabriel, to bring about the birth of John the Baptist, the son of an elderly childless couple, the priest Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth.
Six months later, this angel appeared to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary who was espoused to Joseph, and informed Mary that she had been chosen to give birth to “the Son of the Most High”.
Gabriel told her, “The Lord God shall give him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”
Gabriel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was expecting a child, “as nothing is impossible with God”. Mary then left Nazareth to stay with Elizabeth for about three months, before returning to her own home. Elizabeth’s child was John the Baptist, the precursor of Jesus.
Luke then tells us that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered a census to be conducted for taxation purposes, so Joseph took Mary, his betrothed wife, to Bethlehem, as he was of the house of David.
It was while they were in Bethlehem that Mary gave birth to her child, “and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”. Shepherds watching their flocks by night were told of the infant’s birth by angels, and were the first witnesses of the nativity, Luke tells us.
It is not surprising that there should be no independent account of the birth of an obscure child, at the margins of the Roman Empire. But we have references to Jesus’ later life from near-contemporary non-Christian sources, including the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman writers Tacitus and Suetonius.
And Luke’s later work, the Acts of the Apostles, ends with the Apostle Paul under house arrest in Rome, but still freely preaching the Christian faith.
It was clearly written before Paul’s death, the great fire of Rome (64AD) which the Emperor Nero blamed on the Christians, and the ferocious persecution of Christians which the Roman historian Tacitus documented, and which followed the fire.
It is reasonable to conclude that Luke’s gospel (and Acts) were written before this time, providing us with a comprehensive account of the first Christmas.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.