Wednesday, December 19, 2007

All That Holiday Hoopla?


Alright, so it's getting overwhelming, all the Christmas music, the Carols, the red and green colors on everything. Even the Salvation Army jingling their bells is getting a bit on your nerves. So what? It's once a year, and you don't have to pay that much attention to it.

Too commercialized? Well of course! This is America, Land of the Shopper! What do you expect? We celebrate the Founding Fathers with sales. We mark Independence Day with more sales. We commercialize everything we can, whenever we can. It's our way. So relax. It's not important.

What is important is to remember that this season is about Hope. Not how many nifty gifts you get, not the cards you send and receive. Hope. That's what the Christmas celebration is all about. We mark December 25th as the day that Jesus was born, He whom we call the Christ, the Son of GOD. His coming gives Hope to all who have sinned - that's you! and me! - that they will be forgiven those sins. That's what Christmas is about.

Now I know, as do most of you, that some folks like to grumble that Jesus was not born in December - Winter - at all, and that the Christmas celebration is simply melded onto the ancient Pagan Saturnalia. Well, so what? It's true. And how does that change the meaning in the slightest? If you take a Butcher's Shop and clean it out, change the decor, and open a Tea Shoppe, is it still a Butcher's Shop? Of course not. That's gone and something new is in its place.

So what do we know about the birth of Jesus? Well, not so terribly much actually. We have to rely on the Gospels for much of the information, and some of it is wrong. Now that's merely the writers' errors as they attempted to match misunderstood prophecies.

For instance, there's no archaeological evidence that Bethlehem in Judea even existed in the 1st Century. It's a small city now, but at the time of Jesus' birth it didn't exist. There was, and is, another Bethlehem, though, and it was close to Nazareth, rather than far away as is Bethlehem in Judea (75 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea). So why did the writers describe the town as Bethlehem in Judea? Because they misread the prophecy. Here, read it with me. First the New Testament account:
"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…" (Matthew 2:1)

And what is the prophecy about His birthplace?
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:2)

Pretty straightforward, isn't it? But is it? You see the word 'clans' in the prophecy? Not towns or places, or villages. Clans. All that prophecy means is that the smallest of the clans among the descendants of Judah would produce the Messiah. As James Tabor said: "Everyone thinks 'Bethlehem' is a place, and indeed there were towns named "House of Bread" in Judea and in Galilee, but...the term Bethlehem-Ephrath/Ephratah is the name of a clan of Judah--children of Caleb through Hur, who was the firstborn of an extraordinary woman named Ephrathah..." (This is found in 1 Chronicles in the Old Testament)

Would Joseph have taken his heavily-pregnant betrothed 75 miles, through a barren wasteland - home to thieves and other criminals - to a town that did not exist, for a Roman Census? No. And only males would have been required anyway. No, if Joseph really did take Mary to any Bethlehem it would have been in Galilee, where a town did exist and still exists today. Don't feel badly about the writers - we all misread things, and so did they.

Okay, so what about that whole December 25th deal? Isn't that bogus? Yep! It really is. The accounts of His birth, you might recall, included shepherds tending their flocks in the fields at night.
"In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over the flock by night." (Luke 2:8)

Not in the Winter. those sheep and their shepherds would not have been in the fields in a Judean Winter night. But they would have if it was in the Spring, as some believe, or in the Autumn, as I and some others believe. Jesus was not born in the early Winter. The date the early Church chose was in fact the date of the Roman Saturnalia. They did it for precisely the reasons you would expect: to draw pagans into the fold with a festival at the same time of year as one of their old festivals. The actual date is unknown, just as it is completely unimportant. It is the birth of the Messiah that is important. Keep that in mind.

From Jesus Police:
There are various theories about Jesus' birth. Many believed that Jesus was born on January 6 (the birthday of the God Osiris). The rationale for this date was the belief that Jesus was exactly 30 years old when he died and that he died on April 6. Counting backwards from April 6 exactly 29 years and 3 months gave a birth date of January 6 (Craveri, 1967). This date was adopted by the Eastern Church and called "Epiphany" or "The Appearance."

The African Tertullian (c 160 –220 A.D.) and the Roman Hippolytus (c 170-235 A.D.) believed the date to be March 25th, the spring equinox under the ancient Roman calendar. Clement of Alexandria (c 150-215 A.D.) believed that Jesus was born on May 20, the 25 day of the Egyptian month of Pachon. None of these theories had any real facts associated with them, but they were popular nonetheless.

A 3rd Century Christian named Sextus Julius Africanus believed that March 25 was Jesus' conception and the day of Earth's creation as well. Using March 25 as the day of conception, he skipped ahead 9 months to December 25 as the birth date.

What date was it? We don’t know. Nobody knows, and, again, it doesn’t matter. What matters at this time of year is that most Christians are celebrating His birth, which brought into the world Hope of Salvation.

That Hope of Salvation is what all the hoopla is all about, Folks. The Carols and the decorations. Even the Santa Claus images harkens back to a Christian Saint in most of our traditions. So rather than get huffy about all of the lights and packages, why not remember that it means Hope. Hope for all of us.

5 comments:

camojack said...

Merry Christmas!!!

Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

Obviously I loved Christmas as a kid bu then I grew cynical about it in my teens and for a few decades but the older I get the more I enjoy it. Thanks for the reminder of what it really is about.

benning said...

Thanks to both of you!
Camo: Merry Christmas! Where you gonna be this time?

Patrick: I grew restive with the celebrations, too, and even now find myself wishing sound systems would die and lights go out - it gets to be so kitschy! - but then I see the kids looking happy, and the adults choosing just the right decorations and gifts, and I have to remember what it's all about.

camojack said...

I'll be catching a ride with Santa to Colorado this year...to visit Mom.

benning said...

Camo: Mom'll like that! Have fun!