I recently watched a documentary on the history of Christmas. Little was said about the actual birth of Jesus in this program as it was more dedicated to traditions of the past 400 years or so. But they did point out that there are two versions of his birth in the Bible, one in Matthew and a second in Luke. Here is what it says in Matthew: Chapter 1, verse 18 “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the power of the holy spirit. 19 Joseph her husband, an upright man unwilling to expose her to the law, decided to divorce her quietly. 20. Such was his intention when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and said to him: “Joseph, son of David, have no fear about taking Mary as your wife. It is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. 21 She is to have a son and you are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” But Matthew fails to give us any details whatever about the time and circumstances of the birth.
Now in Luke, Chapter 1, verse 26 “In the sixth mont, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee named Nazareth.” Gabriel tells Mary directly that she is pregnant via the Holy Spirit with Jesus. This announcement is made in the “6th month.” Now if that is the beginning of her pregnancy, as it sounds, the birth could not have happened before March, when many theologians speculate it actually did happen. But, if its meaning is that Mary was already in her 6th month of pregnancy, then we are again left asking when the birth actually happened.
One thing most Historic Theologians seem to agree upon is that the birth likely happened in the early springs because of the reference to lambs being nearby. And lambs are usually born in the spring. But Luke tells us also that Caesar Augustus made a decree ordering a census be taken. This too lines up with the springtime as historians have been able to date just such a census in the spring of that year.
Jesus is often referred to as “the light of the world.” The early Christian church was renown for co-opting pagan holidays into one of its own. The Roman holiday of Saturnalia, along with several other cultures, celebrated the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, as the beginning of the return of more light to each following day. Out of the darkness and into the light, as we like to say.
One Christian tradition has a visit by “the Magi.” Who were these people bringing gifts of all things? The Magi were a well-known group who belonged to a religious following called Zoroastrians. The word magi is Greek for magician. We refer to them as the wise men but more likely they were performers of some sort, men who read the stars, practicers of Astrology and Alchemy. In this sense they were thought wise. Today, we would think of them just a bit differently. They are also sometimes referred to as the three kings, though it is unlikely such was the case. Tradition has it the brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is likely they were travelers from Persia carrying such goods as a normal part of their trade.
Jesus was born in a manger, or so it is said. A most humble place as manger is a French word referring to the place where cattle and sheep eat. But its structure would certainly have lent it to usage as a place to bed a newborn. But more like, then as today, Mary probably held the new-born close to her own warm body for quite some time, not just to keep him warm, but also to feed him.
But firmly within the story is the tradition of gifting. The Magi, whoever they were, are said to have left gifts for Jesus which is a strong statement unto itself. It says; this is what a person should do. The great thing about this tradition is there is absolutely no requirement that you are a Christian or need to believe in Jesus at all to do it! It is the simple idea of giving without expectation of return. I give something to you because I think it will make you happy. And seeing you happy is reward enough for me, I need no more. I really feel that, more and more.
How do we take the birth of Jesus? The angel in the Bible, who announces the birth of Jesus, wishes peace to all men of good will. I think that is a marvelous starting place for everyone regardless of religion. While O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi” has a new take on the original act, it does teach us something very valuable for this time of year. We give what we can to those we love because we love them, and in return we only want their love. And that is the meaning of Jesus, plain, simple, and easy.