This is Christmas. And that means the birth of Jesus Christ
Sunday, we celebrated Christmas. But during the run-up to Dec. 25, it routinely "burns" me when some store clerk, or even someone who should know better, says: "Happy Holidays." To which I reply firmly – and I hope without too much snark – "Merry Christmas to you, too."
Let's be clear here. We would not be celebrating any holiday in late December if it weren't for Jesus Christ. And while it is true that there are two, or perhaps three, holidays here (not including New Year's Day a week later), none is a major holiday compared with Christmas.
A few years ago, my wife and I were in New York City for Christmas (her younger daughter lives there). We were interested in listening to Macy's advertisements on the radio and then shopping in the big Macy's at Herald Square to note that that huge retail store's statement was: "Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah." We agreed that this was appropriate given the large Jewish population in New York – about 25 percent when I lived in the city in the mid-1960s.
But it also is worth saying that Hanukah is not a major Jewish holiday in the same way Christmas is for Christians. Major Jewish holidays are Passover and Rosh Hashanah and perhaps Yom Kippur, not Hanukah. However, if Jews wish to "replicate" Christians' Christmas celebration with a Hanukah celebration, I have no trouble with that.
I remain curious about Kwanzaa. According to the Kwanzaa website, this holiday "is an African American celebration with focus on the traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement. Kwanzaa is neither political nor religious and despite some misconceptions, is not a substitute for Christmas. It is simply a time of reaffirming African-American people, their ancestors and culture. Kwanzaa, which means 'first fruits of the harvest' in the African language Kiswahili . . ."
However, Kwanzaa is of relatively recent origin, no more than a couple decades of "history." Christmas, on the other hand, originated very early in the Christian church. And before the atheists and non-believers jump all over this, let's be clear: No, the institutional church does not know the date of Jesus' birth for sure. We simply celebrate it on Dec. 25 each year. On the other hand, Easter, the other really big Christian holiday, is well dated in history because Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover. Hence, Easter is the first Sunday after the beginning of Passover.
Neither of the Christian gospels with a birth story, Matthew and Luke, makes any mention of the time of year. Christian lore suggests it was cold. Critics of this idea, however, assert that Jewish shepherds didn't "abide in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks" between November and March.
Theologians and astronomers don't agree on much either. Here is what the Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond E. Brown, says (The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday, 1993):
"It might help the discussion if the range of historical possibilities were spelled out. Really no one, including the astronomers, takes everything in the Matthean account as literal history. Matthew says that the magi saw the star (not planets, not a comet) of the King of the Jews at its rising (or in the East), and that it went before them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and came to rest over where the child was.
"In recent literature I have not found an astronomical proposal that fits that literally. If we leave aside literal exactitude, and allow some type of likeness, symbolism, or poetic rephrasing in the Matthean account, as even astronomers must, then there are possibilities ranging from substantially factual, to partially factual, to totally theologically creative."
Brown then goes on to discuss "very substantial Matthean facticity; partial Matthean facticity and total theological (literary) license."
Islamic writers often wonder about the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, about their inconsistencies and even the fact that Mark and John do not include birth narratives. So it is important to point out that the authors of the four canon gospels were not (with a possible exception noted below) eyewitnesses to Jesus' life. In fact, and Luke is a particularly good example of this, they wrote 20 or more years after Jesus' death in the motivation to capture and write down what the eyewitnesses knew. William Barclay, the Scottish theologian, believes Luke may have managed to interview Mary and mother of Jesus in her old age. It is almost certain he interviewed the disciple, John, one of the few disciples who died a natural death. Luke, who was a well-educated physician and traveling companion of Paul, is quite specific about this motivation.
It wasn't until the fourth century that the early Christian church settled on a date to celebrate Christ's birth. Most of the modern trappings of the commercialized Christmas have arisen in recent times. Further, the statement that this was an arbitrary selection designed to co-opt a Roman pagan celebration also is correct.
The bottom line, however, is: This is Christmas. And that means the birth of Jesus Christ.
The writer served as the stated clerk (chief ecclesiastical officer) of New Castle Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church-USA 2008-2015 and formerly was its moderator. New Castle Presbytery is composed of 53 churches in Delaware and eastern Maryland. He resides at Broadkill Beach. firstname.lastname@example.org.