Do you know the real Christmas story?
That’s not an absurd question in for this generation.
I suspect that many have a vague idea that this holiday is somehow connected to a fat white-bearded guy dressed in red and white, some reindeers (one with a red nose), a tall three-ball carrot-nosed top-hatted snowman, and a mother holding a baby with barn animals and shepherds standing around. Along with these characters, there is music to go along with the celebration: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause”, “It’s Cold Outside”, “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bell Rock”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” are just a few of the many songs that have no historical or scriptural basis.
In addition, we bring evergreen trees into our homes, attach wreathes of evergreen branches to our doors and mantles, drink eggnog, and make Christmas cookies in the shape of Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph. We purchase gifts for our family and friends, and wrap them up and place them under the tree. This gift giving in American culture is often the centerpiece of the Christmas celebration.
We Americans spend millions during the holiday season.
This is the Cultural Christmas celebration that occurs in America and other parts of the world.
A more traditional celebration includes many aspects of the cultural celebration with the addition of a reading of the Biblical Christmas story that is recorded in Matthew and in Luke. This story begins in Nazareth, a small community in Galilee where most lived in cave homes on a steep hillside.
Photo: Modern Nazareth viewed from Mt Carmel.
Archeologists say that the entire ancient village sits underneath the largest church in the Middle East- The Church of Annunciation. During our visits to Nazareth over the years, we have been fortunate to have access to the key to the gate entrance to the cave homes under the church building. The church was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio and built in the 1960’s. The bronze doors of the church tell the story of Jesus from the Annunciation to his Resurrection.
Photo: The Church of the Annunciation
Photo: With our friends in Nazareth- 2006
Photo: Inside the church- 2000
Photo: The Bronze Doors
The Dome of the Church
Outside the Church- 2006
Under the Church outside a cave home
Baker's Home - 2018
Baker's Home Nazareth
The angel Gabriel arrives in Nazareth to give a message to a young lady named Mary who is engaged to be married to Joseph, a constructor.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. Luke 1:30-35
Joseph was naturally troubled when he discovered that Mary was pregnant, as he was a righteous man that would not have sexual relations with Mary before the marriage ceremony.
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25
Then a census is ordered by the Roman emperor Augustus. A census means taxes, and Joseph must take his pregnant wife on a seven-day journey to the ancestral home of King David, the small village of Bethlehem, which is seven miles south of the Temple in Jerusalem. Both Mary and Joseph are descended from David.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:1-7
After The Baby is born, wise men from the east follow a star that brings them to the home of Mary and Joseph.
And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:9-11
That’s usually the cue for us to open our own gifts, which are waiting under the tree. A flurry of frantic activity develops, and the floor is quickly covered with discarded wrapping paper, boxes, and freshly opened gifts. We settle back to enjoy our gifts, and eggnog & cookies. It’s the Traditional Christmas celebration.
But what is the real Christmas story? What is behind our cultural and traditional celebrations that has made this holiday the most important day in many nations around the world?
The real story actually begins in the book of Genesis 15 when God made a promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many and his ‘seed’ would bless the all the nations of the world. Listen how Paul explained it to his friends in Galatia:
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring’, who is Christ. Galatians 3:7-8,16.
From the first book in the Bible, God lays out his plan that he will provide One who will restore the relationship between God and mankind that was broken in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This same One will also become the ruler of this world. Isaiah prophetically spoke these words regarding this character who became known as the Messiah, who would be a descendant of King David:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9:6-7
The prophet Micah told us that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2
There are many other prophecies of this coming Messiah, but one of the most significant is from Daniel, who spoke for God in high government circles of the Babylonian empire:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. Dan 7:12-14
This ‘Son of Man’ is none other than Jesus Christ, who is the central character of the Christmas story. He often used this term to describe himself. Luke describes an event when a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus by his friends, who were sure that Jesus could heal his paralysis:
And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.” Luke 5:20-26
Yes the ‘Son of Man’ does have the authority to forgive sins, which belongs to God alone! This Messiah is not just another anointed prophet- He is God in the flesh!
But the God-Man had a specific mission when he came to Earth to fulfill the promise that was made to Abraham- that he would be the one to save all mankind from their sins and restore the broken relationship between God and mankind. Jesus specifically described this mission to Nicodemus as recorded in John chapter 3:13-17:
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The Real Christmas Story is all about God restoring the broken relationship with all mankind. He is the one who does the restoring- and did it through his death on the cross, as the unblemished, perfect sinless offering for mankind’s sin.
Jesus often told his disciples:
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Luke 9:22
The disciples didn’t really believe him, and were surprised when he was arrested, tried by the Jewish High Council, condemned by the Roman governor, and crucified on Passover Friday- which was a celebration of what happened in Egypt 1500 years in Egypt before when the angel of death passed over all the Hebrew homes which had blood from a lamb smeared over their door.
“You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it…It is the LORD'S Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt”. Exodus 12:5-7,11-13
What a foretelling picture of what God was going to do Himself on that future Passover celebration!
God is the ultimate “illustrator” who often uses real life examples to describe Who He is, What He is Like, and How He reaches out to Mankind. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of such word pictures. God paints portraits of Himself in his Law found in Exodus, and describes His relationship with Mankind through the Sacrifices given in Leviticus. We see God’s principles for living through the accounts given regarding men and women who interacted with God in the pages of Genesis, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther and through the birth of Jesus narrative found in Matthew and Luke.
We all have our mental picture of the “Christmas” scene. We remember the census for Roman taxation requiring Joseph and Mary to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem (historical fact). Many of us recall crowded streets, the “no vacancy” sign at the Bethlehem Travel Lodge, and the innkeeper’s kind wife who takes a very pregnant Mary to the isolated stable somewhere out back, (myth- this is just Hollywood and is nowhere in the Biblical text!). We all have seen the manger scenes of Baby Jesus lying in a feeding trough in a stable surrounded by cows, horses, sheep, and chickens (partial truth- there are no cows in the Bethlehem area and that stable was probably in a cave!).
Archeological evidence in Bethlehem indicates the inhabitants lived in ‘cave-homes’ dug into the steep ridge where ancient Bethlehem was located. How steep is this ridge? Once I was driving up the side of this ridge to Manger Square with Laura and the kids in a Mitsubishi van, and I had to downshift into first gear to make it up the hill!
Craig Englert and the steepness of the Bethlehem Ridge
Most of these “cave-homes” had three rooms: an outside structure built over the opening to the cave which was the first room where the family slept and cooked; a middle room called the ‘kataluma’ which was used for storage and guest accommodations; and the inner room which was where the sheep and goats stayed during the cold winter, thus providing heat for the rest of the cave home. Luke records that since the kataluma was filled, Mary gave birth in the inner room, and laid the Baby in a feeding trough – the manger.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (kataluma). Luke 2:7
Somehow “Kataluma” was translated “inn” in many English texts, although archeological evidence indicates there was no inn or hotel in First Century Bethlehem. Visiting families stayed in the second room which was also a storeroom. Since there were more of Joseph’s relatives there for the census, and since Mary was giving birth, they were given the innermost room normally reserved for animals.
Imagine, God arrives on Earth as a baby born in a cave where animals live, and has to use the feeding trough to rest in! He could have arrived in all His regal splendor, accompanied by a host of angels. Yet He decided to do it this way, to come as a baby, totally helpless and dependent on members of His Creation to care for him. I can’t help but imagine the chickens sitting on the edge of the feeding trough, where they would normally find something to eat, wondering why this human baby was lying there. What was the baby thinking as he watched the chickens hop side to side?
The Bible says Jesus has experienced all the things of this life that we have. Look at this situation where Mary and Joseph had to trust God for basic needs. They are not at home, are travelers on the road, living at poverty level, away from many of their comforts, and dependent on others. Yet God provided for them every step of the way. He used ‘wise men’- astrologers from the East who knew the prophecies about the Jewish Messiah, to provide much of their financial needs:
And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
Can many of us relate to this day to day, paycheck to paycheck living? This is what Jesus’ family experienced.
Let’s step back from the manger scene to the fields around Bethlehem. Luke records in the next verse (2:8):
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary & Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. Luke 2:8-16
A shepherd with his sheep just north of Bethlehem.
This one was one of Dr Smith's friends with whom he spent three weeks one season out with the flock.
In our modern times, shepherds in Bethlehem still take their flocks of sheep and goats out into the fields during periods in the spring, summer, and fall. We have seen them often in the summer when we lived in Jerusalem, but never in November to February. Many still plant a winter wheat crop in Bethlehem, when the animals stay indoors. This fact raises question about the timing of Jesus’ birth, which probably occurred in the spring or summer. However early church leaders decided (for some good reasons) to celebrate God becoming human during the celebration of the winter solstice holiday that all Romans celebrated.
A flock in the fields west of Bethlehem
Shepherds, who were smelly, dirty and ragged, (as you would probably be if you slept in the fields with goats and sheep!) were considered to be on the low end of the social structure, just above prostitutes and tax collectors, but were the ones to whom God sent the angels to announce Jesus’ birth. Angels were not sent to the High Priest in Jerusalem, or to other members of the Sanhedrin. No angels were sent to King Herod or even to Caesar Augustus. Instead, they announced the birth of the Messiah to humble shepherds. Another illustration that Luke hopes we notice.
Green pastures east of Bethlehem
Bethlehem was the place where lambs were produced for the sacrifices at the Temple, only seven miles to the north. When these lambs were born, they were wrapped in special cloths (‘swaddling clothes’) to protect them from injury as they had to be perfect unblemished lambs for sacrifices on the altar. Jesus was born in this same village that was the source of lambs for the Temple sacrifices, and like them, wrapped in the same protective ‘swaddling cloths’. Luke hopes that we make the connection.
If we step back from the shepherd fields and look at the steep ridgeline of Bethlehem, we will notice a peculiar, volcano-shaped hill about three miles to the east of the cave-home.
This man-made hill is the site of a luxurious palace built by Herod the Great, and aptly named “The Herodian”. It was a fortress built by a ruthless paranoid half-Jewish king, designed to provide protection for him and his family in the case of revolt of his ‘beloved’ people, invasion by a neighbor, or disfavor with his Roman allies. He built another, farther south in the desert, called Masada.
Every good artist uses “contrast” to highlight the main subject, and this opulent palace contrasts sharply with the humble cave home of Mary and Joseph. What a backdrop to put the birth of Jesus in perspective!
The Palace inside the Herodian, where Herod's tomb was discovered in the early 2000's.
Herod was a king who ruled by might. He was a self-centered, ruthless, arrogant ruler who occupied the throne because of his political connections. His father sent him to school in Rome, where one of his classmates was a young Octavian who later became Augustus Caesar. Herod was very paranoid of anyone who might threated his rule. He had two of his sons drowned in a pool and he killed his ‘favorite’ wife Mariame because he thought they were plotting against him. Augustus once said that it was “better to be Herod’s pig than a family member.”
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; Matthew 2:1-3
They knew there would be bloodshed.
Herod taxed from the poor, and spent their money on his comfort and protection of his kingdom. He was hated by his subjects, and feared by all his family members. When Herod realized that he was sick and dying, he ordered all the leading citizens and priests arrested and taken to the chariot track in Jericho where upon news that he had died, his soldiers were to kill them all so that there would be true morning at his death. That’s how twisted his mind was! Fortunately, his soldiers did not carry out that order.
The Herodian Palace Floor
A few miles away from this symbol of tyrannical rule, the King by Right entered His creation in a opposite manner. Matthew and Luke hope you notice the contrast: when Herod was selfish, God shows Himself to be ‘others-centered’; while Herod was ruthless, God proves over and over to be merciful; where Herod was always taking, God is always giving; while Herod ruled by discrimination, favoritism, and prejudice, God rules with justice. There could not be a more extreme comparison!
Because Herod is who he is, he orders the killing of every male baby in Bethlehem. This forces the Jesus Family to flee east through the desert to Egypt, where they remain political refugees for two years. Finally, Herod goes on to his ‘reward’ and they are able to come back to Israel, still fearful of other rulers who are just as ruthless. After a tumultuous infancy, Jesus arrives in a home in Nazareth where he can grow up in relative calm.
It was a cold day on top of the Herodian.
Through the real Christmas story, we see how God placed Himself in a situation at birth that was more traumatic than most people experience. He is one who through His life circumstances can completely relate to us all. He proved Himself to be one who is willing to endure much to accomplish His plan to bring us all into His family for eternity. The many qualities of God proclaimed in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures are demonstrated through the life of Jesus recorded in the Christian Scriptures. His birth is just the first in a series of life experiences that proclaim the love God has for His people, and His utmost desire to know us.
The Gospel is a proclamation of what God did by sending Himself in human form into this world to make the perfect sacrifice that would forgive mankind’s sins. All we have to do is accept it. Nothing more. This usually happens when we have an experience- an epiphany of what Jesus did on the cross. After that a transformation begins and we are changed from theinside out. God’s thoughts, morality, and ways become ours, albeit sometimes slowly.
It’s time to celebrate the Real Christmas Story! It’s personal and magnificent: God’s redemption of mankind and an invitation to spend eternity as a member of God’s Family. The lyrics to the famous Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” express it well:
“God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy”
Moselle, Arielle, Lukas, Mikaela, Laura & Michael in Bethlehem, 2006
Sea of Galilee Left: 2006 Right 2018