The story of the birth of Jesus is one that was set down many decades after his death. As such, it has always troubled biblical experts. The mere fact that the year of his birth is unknown today, suggests that the story was largely one invented by the early church.
But, unwittingly or not, they did get the main idea quite right.
No, Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25. The date was almost assuredly borrowed from the cultic religion Mithras, who was also claimed to have been born on that day, and was popular in Rome in the early years of Christianity.
Jesus was also probably not born in Bethlehem, but rather in his home town of Nazareth.
But he was born to a poor family, living a simple life. His father, Joseph was claimed to be a worker of wood, although some suggest the trade was actually stone mason, and it is entirely likely that Jesus, in his earliest years worked in the nearby town of Sepphoris, which was undergoing a major building boom.
His birth likely elicited not great announcement, other than to friends and relatives nearby. This likely accounts for our extremely limited knowledge of his early years.
But what was perfectly true, was that Jesus was not born to riches nor born to royalty. He was of the most humble of backgrounds. As he abandoned his trade, and went on the road as an itinerant preacher, he was not financed by the wealthy and powerful of Jerusalem or of the Jewish leadership. He was an unknown, from a fairly backwater town, of unremarkable family.
This made his teaching all the more outlandish to those in power. Who in the world did he think he was after all?
He healed the sick and those who were rejected by society for any number of reasons. He embraced the lame, the blind, the reprobate, the tax collector, and all those who were publicly pointed at and scorned.
Indeed, Matthew reports in his famous story in chapter 25, that even those who Jesus declared to be “good disciples” had no more idea of why they had found favor than those who did not. Jesus announced quite simply: “when you did it to the least of these, you did if to me.”
This is the lesson of Christmas.
Jesus came not to argue fine points of law with the rabbis and temple priests. He came not to add burdens to those already crushed by burdens. He came not to further exile the marginalized and reject them from God’s love. He came not to rule in any traditional sense that we understand today.
He came to declare that God embraced them and loved them, and that they were the ones for whom the Kingdom was designed.
He spent his life, all of it, among those who were the least in the world in which he lived. They were the least of the Jewish world, and they surely were even less in the world of Rome. He ministered to them, he taught them, he healed them, body and mind.
So, in fact, the story of Bethlehem, so beautifully told by Matthew rings with a beauty that is breathtaking to us still today. In a manger, in a back room, among the animals, a baby is born to a simple man and woman, who will in his time change the entire world forever more.
A man, not born to riches, nor born to sit with kings, will be king in the most real way imaginable. He will remind us that it is not what we do, but what we are. And we are a being that by its very nature is meant, by genetics or by God’s design, to be in community.
We are called to love one another, to serve one another, to protect one another. It is not ever enough to stand up for what we believe, out of principle. That is expected of us. As Jesus would put it, even the Pharisees would do as much. But we are called to stand for all those who cannot stand for themselves. That is our mission. That is what makes us Christians.
Today, spend some time, perhaps as the evening closes down, thinking about who needs your help. Will you be a voice for the gay community? For the homeless? For Muslims? For immigrants? For the elderly? For children? For oppressed people in other lands? Dedicate your next year to embracing some “other” in our world and doing what you can to stand in solidarity with them. Work for their interests.
I promise you, you will be working for your own. And God’s.
And what else need you worry about?