Luke 2:1-7: The Birth of Christ
When I say ‘Christmas’ what comes to mind? Santa Claus, stockings, reindeer, Christmas trees, gifts, food…. Most of our associations have to do with lights, and music and festivities, and large family gatherings with lots of gifts and food and a large expenditure of money, but not so at the first Christmas. Luke 2:1-7 gives us the humble and simple account of one of the greatest miracles of all time, God becoming man. How did we get to the modern practices of celebrating Christmas the way we do?
In the earliest times of the time, the birth of Christ was not celebrated, some of the church fathers even thought that the celebrating of birthdays was a pagan practice because the only mention of birthdays were Pharaoh’s and Herod’s. Matyrdom days were seen as more important. By the Second Century the date for Christ’s birth was long forgotten and various proposals were made, ‘January 2, 6; March 21, 25; April 18, 19; May 20, 28; November 17, 20.’1
‘Exactly when the early church settled on December 25 is not known. The first recorded reference to that date as the day of Christ’s birth is found in the writings of Sextus Julius Africanus early in the third century. The earliest evidence of the church celebrating Christmas on December 25 comes from the fourth-century manuscript known as the Chronography or Calendar of 354. According to that document Christmas was being celebrated on December 25 by the church at Rome no later than a.d. 336. That date was gradually adopted by the church as a whole over the next several centuries.
Why the church finally decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 is also not known for certain. Some believe that it was to offer a Christian alternative to the popular pagan holiday known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the unconquered sun”), which was celebrated on December 25. That festival was inaugurated late in the third century to honor several sun gods, chief of which was Mithras, whose worship (Mithraism) posed a serious threat to the Christian church. Others hold that the date was chosen because it is nine months after March 25, the day that some in the early church believed (without biblical warrant) was the date of Jesus’ conception.
Over the centuries the trappings now commonly associated with Christmas gradually seeped into the celebration. Gift giving was an integral part of the pagan winter festivals, and became firmly associated with Christmas by the end of the eighteenth century. Mistletoe was sacred to the ancient Druids, who attributed to it both magical and medicinal powers. Kissing under the mistletoe may derive from a Druid or Scandinavian custom that enemies who met under mistletoe were to cease fighting and observe a truce. The crèche, or manger scene, originated with St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century. The practice of singing carols also originated in the Middle Ages. The city of Riga in Latvia claims to be the home of the first Christmas tree, dating from the year 1510. Others legends attribute the first Christmas tree to Martin Luther, who allegedly brought an evergreen tree into his house and decorated it. There is, however, no contemporary record of his having done so. Christmas trees became popular in Germany in the seventeenth century, and first appeared in America early in the nineteenth century. The first commercial Christmas cards were sold in London in 1843.
Santa Claus, the secular symbol of Christmas, derives from the fourth-century Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra in modern Turkey. Though little is known of his life, Nicholas was remembered for his generosity and kindness. According to one legend, he rescued three daughters of a poor family from being forced into prostitution by providing dowries for them so they could marry. After doing their laundry, the girls hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry. That night Nicholas tossed a small bag of gold coins into each girl’s stocking. The custom of hanging Christmas stockings derives in part from that story. Settlers from the Netherlands, where Nicholas is popular, brought his tradition with them to America. Nicholas’s Dutch name, Sinterklaas, or Sinte Klaas, eventually became Anglicized into “Santa Claus.”’2
Just know this, the Bible does not command that any person celebrate Christmas. However, given the fact that the Western world now has this tradition I believe it can be useful to use it to remember the incarnation of Christ and preach the gospel.
As we look at these unadorned verses I want to point out the mysterious way in which God brings His greatest plans to pass. In many ways the birth of Christ in such humble conditions is a lesson in the typical ways in which God works in history and in our lives as well. Let’s put all the tinsel aside and appreciate how God works. We will see in our text that God uses the most powerful forces in the world to perform His will. We will see the grand promises made to David quietly fulfilled. And the grand miracle of God becoming man coming to pass in an animal’s feeding trough. Reminding ourselves of these things will feed our own faith as we think about God’s working in our own lives.