For Christians, Christmas is more than a festive season, or the occasion for an exchange of gifts. It remains the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the moment when God humbled himself to be born as man, to share our humanity so that we might share his divinity.
This mystery is one which has occupied many of the greatest minds of all time: yet is accessible to little children who can understand the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable surrounded by farm animals, because there was no room for the Holy Family in the inn.
What we know for certain of these events comes from two of the four Gospels, those attributed to St Matthew and St Luke. It is instructive to look at what they say.
Matthew’s Gospel, written for a Jewish audience, commences with a genealogy of Jesus, tracing his family line back to King David, clearly establishing that Jesus was his direct descendent, to confirm that he was the long-expected Messiah of the Jewish people.
Matthew tells how Jesus’ mother Mary was found to be expecting a child, and how her betrothed Joseph, who was “a just man”, intended to separate from her privately, as her pregnancy meant she was committed to someone else. However, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife, “for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.
Matthew tells us this fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, written at least five centuries earlier: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means God with us.” Joseph did as the angel asked.
Matthew then says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a small village outside Jerusalem, and was visited by Magi from the east, learned men who studied the stars, who came to pay homage to the infant king of the Jews.
Interestingly, Matthew explains to us that the Magi had first visited King Herod, the despotic king of Judea who during his long reign had rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as magnificent towns and monuments. Perhaps foolishly, they asked where the infant king was to be born.
Matthew says that Herod was “troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” at the birth of a new king: clearly, he would threaten Herod’s rule. To deal with the threat, Herod subsequently had all the baby boys in Bethlehem murdered, in what later Christians would call the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.
Some historians have suspected that Matthew invented this story, as there is no external historical evidence for the massacre. However, we do know that during Herod’s long reign he executed the High Priest, and murdered his own wife and at least two of his sons, so the Massacre of the Holy Innocents is entirely in character, even if unimportant to his contemporaries.
In any event, Joseph had been warned by an angel of Herod’s intentions, and fled into Egypt, where he remained until Herod’s death. The Holy Family later returned to Israel, and settled in Nazareth, a city in Galilee.
The other Gospel account, from St Luke, is consistent with Matthew’s account, but more detailed.
Strangely, his account begins not with Jesus, but with the extraordinary events surrounding the conception of John the Baptist, the son of an elderly Jewish priest named Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth.
The Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem, to tell him that his elderly wife would conceive and bear a son, who was to be named John.
Luke then tells us that the angel appeared to a virgin living in Nazareth named Mary, to ask her to be the mother of the Messiah. He also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy “for nothing is impossible to God”.
Mary set out to visit her cousin, and Luke provides us with an exquisitely beautiful account of the meeting of the two women, in which Elizabeth confirms that Mary will be the mother of God. After staying with Elizabeth, Mary returned home to Nazareth. Luke explains what happened when John was born.
Only then does Luke give us the infancy narrative of Jesus, linking it to a census ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
While historians have debated Quirinius’ role, there is no doubt that a census was conducted at about that time, and it is reasonable to accept Luke’s near contemporary account that Joseph took his expectant wife to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, to register.
Luke provides a fuller account of Jesus’ nativity in Bethlehem, the appearance of angels to the shepherds who are the first witnesses of the birth of Christ, and later, Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. He does not record the visit of the magi, nor the exile in Egypt.
The two Gospels complement one another, and are as fresh today as when they were written. Both mark the great turning point in history when the Son of God gave up his divine powers to become one like us, then sacrificed himself for our salvation.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.