Unwrapping Christmas

“When Pope Julius I authorized December 25 to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus in A.D. 353, who would have ever thought that it would become what it is today. When Professor Charles Follen lit candles on the first Christmas tree in America in 1832, who would have ever thought that the decorations would become as elaborate as they are today.”  – Brian L. Harbour, James W. Cox

“To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.“        – E. B. White

Certainly, Christmas has become obscured by all the trappings and ornamentation with which we have encrusted it.  So much of the true story, the deeper meaning of the Christmas celebration has been lost to view, buried under rituals of the secularized holiday celebration.  Any cause for celebrating in this world is a good thing.  If the day arbitrarily set aside as that for celebrating Christ Jesus’ birth is the catalyst for secular celebration, that is good.

The important issue for me is that we recognize the rituals and traditions that are extraneous to the central point.  Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation of our Lord and Savior who pitched his tent with us and later died to save us from certain spiritual death.  It is about the Creator and Sustainer who has invited us into His Kingdom of Light, into His very being.  On these we must be clear in our own hearts and our own company.  We need to find the truth and celebrate what that means for us and for the world.

Some of the traditions we keep are misunderstandings of the events around the birth of Jesus the Messiah. I have been addressing some of these in the last few posts on this blog, including the scandal that followed Jesus and His family because of the circumstances of His birth, and the great risk and danger they faced for years after the birth of Jesus.  Please read more on these in the last four blog posts, if you want more information.

There is much misunderstanding about what the “no room in the inn” situation likely was.  In ancient Palestine, an inn was essentially the expanded homes of the innkeeper.  Family members lived in the family common area.  In many inns, this would be the main floor area that was often divided into a family cooking and sleeping area, and space for the animals of the innkeeper and the guests.

The room for family was often a raised area at one end, which kept the animals from encroaching.  Often, at the edge of this raised space would be a manger built into the raised wall.  In Palestinian villages, houses were often built wall to wall, with little or no space for corral and stable.  Social customs dictated that the guests and their animals had to be cared for and protected by the host, so the guest’s animals had to be protected in the interior space.  This type of house-barn arrangement still exists in many parts of the world, including Europe and the Middle East.

It is likely that when there was no room in the inn, Mary and Joseph were not sent to the stable, but were taken into the family quarters for the birth. Had the family of the coming King been sent to the stable for the birth, the village would have been in an uproar due to the mistreatment of such a mighty guest, and the innkeeper would likely have been physically abused for such a social disaster. That the shepherds went on the way rejoicing is an indication that Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were cared for as well as possible in an inn that was full.

While we do not know how many Magi visited Jesus, it is well established that they did not arrive at the inn.  The account indicates that they visited Jesus at his house.  From Matthew 2:10-12: “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”  Based upon the information given by the Magi to Herod the Great, it appears that Jesus was approaching two years of age, for Herod had all boys two years and younger killed.

The gifts they brought are interesting.  Gold was a gift given to people of prominence, indicating the great value of the recipient.  The Magi clearly recognized Jesus as a person of great prominence.  Frankincense was known as the “spice of kings,” so costly and rare that it was given only to rulers and lords. That it was given to Jesus is a recognition of His title, ‘King of the Jews.”  Myrrh is a burial spice, used to overpower the stench of death when wrapping a body for interment. This gift was prophetic of the coming death of the King of the Jews.

The timing of these gifts is interesting, for the family would have to flee in the night for Egypt shortly after the Magi left them.  The gold and other gifts would enable them to stay in Egypt until the danger had passed, and to travel back not just to Judea but all the way to Galilee when they eventually returned.  The needs of the family were met by men from a strange land who had started their journey to deliver these gifts many months prior to the visit.

While the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus were rudimentary and makeshift, our God was fully meeting the needs of the family in uniquely practical ways, providing a family setting for the birth and sufficient funds for an extended refugee journey.  Two more instances that clearly indicate the divine protection and attention to detail in the incarnation story.

“It is a long time since 1832, longer still from 353, longer still from that dark night brightened by a special star in which Jesus the king was born. Yet, as we approach December 25 again, it gives us yet another opportunity to pause, and in the midst of all the excitement and elaborate decorations and expensive commercialization which surround Christmas today, to consider again the event of Christmas and the person whose birth we celebrate.” – Brian L. Harbour, James W. Cox

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