The house is dark and quiet. My wife and daughter have gone to bed. I just turned out the lights on the Christmas tree after stepping over scraps of wrapping paper, empty boxes, and stacks of gifts from today’s Christmas festivities. I love Christmas: decorating the tree, the time with family, the food, the presents, the excitement in my daughter’s eyes, the general merriment—pretty much everything that has to do with the secular side of the holiday! Now with a little quiet time on my hands as Christmas Day is ending, I’m sitting here thinking about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, the truth is we have no idea when Jesus was really born. I’ve seen scholarly speculation that argues for both fall and spring births, but the New Testament doesn’t give us a date, or even a month. So how did we end up with December 25th? The tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on this date originated sometime in the 4th century, around the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. The Church, however, didn’t officially adopt this day for another two hundred years. Because early Christians didn’t have a specific date in the scriptures to go from, it may have made sense to them to pick a day that had some other significance. December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar—the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day which represents this transition from dark to light seems to me an appropriate symbolic date to celebrate the birth of a man who represents to many the link from our everyday human lives to the divine. There is much imagery in the Bible of both Jesus and God being represented as light, a metaphor we see for the divine in many other world religions as well.
The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Romans because it corresponded with two other celebrations centered around the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration which originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving (an interesting article here). Many Romans in the 4th century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival (see article here). As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman empire, it was only natural that the Christian tradition of Christmas would absorb elements of these other popular pagan celebrations.
Today, churches across the world included recitations or reenactment of the birth story of Jesus in their services. This celebrated story, one of such powerful and familiar imagery, is also used by those seeking to poke holes in the tenets of Christianity. Most Christians have probably heard something along the lines of, “Come on now, you don’t really believe that Jesus was born from a virgin, do you?”
What I find fascinating (and, I must admit, comforting to my scientific mind) is how often we’ve seen variations of this same skepticism in a miraculous birth from academic Christian scholars over the past century. Scholars from Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann to today’s Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out that the oldest writings in the New Testament, Paul’s letters and Mark’s gospel, never mention the Virgin Birth. The story only appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written some eighty years after this miraculous birth supposedly took place, when the authors, who never themselves met Jesus, were trying to establish a community of followers. The details of the birth story itself vary significantly in both gospels, and then we have nothing more about Jesus’ life (other than a brief temple appearance at age twelve as described in Luke) until his baptism by John and the beginning of his ministry sometime around the age of thirty (this mystery of the early years of Jesus’ life is explored in my upcoming novel The Breath of God).
During the time Matthew and Luke were writing the birth stories, Caesar was regularly referred to as a Son of God and as a divine ruler. (I should also note that the term “Son of God actually occurs very infrequently in the Gospels, especially compared to oft-used “Son of Man”). Roman mythology, derived from the Greeks, also had many stories of gods impregnating women. For example, Heracles or Hercules, was born from a mortal woman but fathered by the god Zeus. During the age of the Biblical writers, the science of reproduction wasn’t understood. People assumed that the man provided the seed and the female was just a vessel in which to grow the child.
We also can find similar stories of miraculous births in other religious traditions, for example the story of the Buddha’s birth, which took place five hundred years before Jesus. According to the legend, one night when the Buddha’s mother was sleeping, a white elephant spirit appeared to her in a dream and told her that she would give birth to a unique son. The spirit then entered her womb. A crowd gathered at the baby’s birth, after which a wise old man told the people that the baby would grow into their spiritual leader.
These problems with the birth story of Jesus used to bother me, a lot. Today, I can freely embrace the narrative as part of my religious and cultural heritage and the powerful message it sends because I am no longer handcuffed by a need to require historical accuracy from scripture, nor must I close my eyes to the reality of how the world operates in order to embrace my faith. When I read the account of Christ’s birth, I see the metaphorical importance of the creative power of God in the life of Jesus, just as God is also the creative power behind the universe itself (see my post on the Mythology of Genesis).
What is more important to me than the mechanics of Jesus’ birth is that he was a real man who lived in history who came to be seen as “the Christ,” the Messiah. I philosophize a lot, especially about God and the nature of God (see my post, Rethinking God). But as with science, I believe that theologians also need experimental results, observations, to match our theories. I look at the totality of the life of Jesus and see a man, who by the force of who he was, caused those around him to feel the presence of God, a presence that stayed with them after his death. Jesus was a man who walked the walk that he preached; he lived a life characterized by compassion, acceptance, healing, and prayer. That Jesus was a real man who lived in history and in whom the divine and the mortal were united is critical. To me, this doesn’t mean that all of the stories about him written decades after his death by later followers of the fledgling movement must be historically accurate, especially since I know they were written by people from a different age without the understanding of biology and physics that we have today. What is important to me is how those around Jesus were affected by him. They looked at this man and were better able to understand God.
Creation, incarnation, revelation, and salvation are all parts of the same process. In Jesus we see a man in whom the creative divine light shined so brightly that he was seen as divine himself by his followers. He became a beacon, lighting a path not to himself as an end goal, but to God. It is critical to our own paths to salvation that the Jesus event happened in human history (not just in a mythological or philosophical sense) because it shows the reality of the possibility of salvation for all of us. We each can find God; we can connect with our divine centers, with the breath, the nephesh, of God that is reason for our existences, because Jesus has preceded us and has shown us the path. Through Jesus we can glimpse ultimate reality as filtered through the everyday reality of a man born 2000 years ago.