Christmas a time for reflection as well as festivities

Most of us have our own impressions of what Christmas has come to mean in our modern culture.  A time of festivity spent with family and friends; a time of goodwill and hopefully, charity.  A time of beautiful decorations and colourful lights that lighten the night, of carols both secular and religious.  Christmas is also a time for reflection.  It is probably in the carols that many of us get a glimpse of the deeper meaning of Christmas.  For example, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, just to name one:

“How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming

But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in”

Amidst the festivities, it is important that we see Christmas as a time of reflection.  Whatever your beliefs, whether you are Christian or not, it is an appropriate time to learn more about the Christian faith.  As an education if nothing else.

There are many critics who emphasise that Christmas is not the actual birthday of Jesus Christ, of Jesus of Nazareth.  No one disputes that we do not actually know when he was born except that we know that he was born as a human being.  Yes Christmas, in the northern hemisphere, occurs 3 days after the winter solstice.  It is a time when the sun begins to wax again and according to Christian beliefs about Jesus an appropriate time to celebrate the one whom we believe is God become a human being, the Saviour of the world.  The birth of the light.

Looking at the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, we find Mark does not mention it, Matthew and Luke have two different stories, whilst John in what is described as the prologue of his gospel reflects on the theological significance of his birth.

Luke in chapter 2 tells the story of how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and how Jesus was born in a stable as there was no room in the inn.  Jesus birth was announced to shepherds in the field by an angel and then a choir of angels celebrating the birth.  The shepherds then went to Bethlehem and found the baby as they were told.

Matthew in chapter 2, tells the story of the wise men, magi, astrologers, probably from Babylon who knew of the messianic promises and saw his star in the east.  Whether the star was a conjunction of planets or a miraculous manifestation, is a discussion for another time.  They headed off on a long journey to find the Christ child, led by the star to the Holy City, Jerusalem.  There they enquired of King Herod where the Messiah was to be born.  The chief priests quoted Micah 5:2 that it was Bethlehem in the land of Judah.  The wise men then headed off to Bethlehem, again guided by the star.  Contrary to what might be popular understanding, they did not arrive until sometime after the birth of Jesus.  Given that King Herod ordered all the male boys under the age of 2 to be killed, we can assume that they arrived within 2 years of Jesus birth.  They brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It is fair to say that whatever we believe, we learn a lot about ourselves and humanity by reflecting upon our own lives and the lives of others.  Both those with whom we share life now and those in history.

If we continue for now to accept the Christian beliefs about Jesus, then the Christmas story has much to show us about the journey to meet with the Christ child.

The shepherds met with Jesus very soon after his birth.  They learnt of his birth through revelation, the revelation of angels.  If the shepherds were Jews, then the message of an Angel would not be an unexpected way to hear of the birth of the Messiah.  This illustrates that one path to meet with the Christ child is through revelation, the highest form of knowledge and yet the form of knowledge that is easiest abused and people sometimes mistaking what they believe, as revelation from God.  The contradictions between the major religions of the world and the many faction’s that these religions have broken into is sufficient testimony to this danger.  Yet revelation is still potentially the highest form of knowledge.

The wise men were most likely intellectuals of their time.  Many Christians are an uneasy that they were astrologers, as astrology is dismissed by many of them.  (A discussion of the value of astrology in the Christian Revelation, is for another time).  Yet God communicated with these wise men in a way that they could understand.  They expected to see some sign in the heavens when the Messiah was born.  They also would have known of the prophecies relating to the Messiah, probably through the Jewish time of exile in Babylon.  They took a long and dangerous journey, but the star did not lead them directly to the Christ child, but rather they needed the guidance of the prophets, which the star then confirmed.

The journey of the wise men illustrates a more difficult journey to find the Christ child than that of the shepherds.  We might say it is the journey of the mind and the intellect and it takes longer.  Similarly, we might say that God speaks in each culture in a way that those who seek through their own cultural understanding, can find the Christ child.  Yet the intellectuals needed the guidance of prophecy to complete their journey.

As we enjoy the festivities of Christmas, may we take a time to reflect on what might be our journey to meet with God, to meet with the Christ.

As Christmas day marks the beginning of what are known in the church as the 12 days of Christmas, there will be several blogs on themes related to Christmas.  The 12 days finish with the feast of the Epiphany, which in the Western church, in particular, celebrates the arrival of the wise men.  Thus distinguishing the difference mentioned above.


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