As Christmas arrives once again, writer, teacher and commentator Jay
Parini remembers hearing the Christmas story read by his father, and he
reflects on the meaning of this birthday, two thousand years ago, and
its continuing resonance for more than two billion people around the
(Parini) As Christmas arrives, we turn our attention toward a holiday
with huge meaning for Christians throughout the world. According to a Pew study conducted only last
year – there are over two billion Christians in more than two hundred
countries, and they are far-flung. In
fact, one in four Christians now lives in sub-Saharan Africa. When Jesus asked his disciples to take his
message to the world, he could never have imagined it would spread quite so
The earliest Christians had no idea about Christmas. The Gospel of Mark, which scholars widely
believe is the earliest account of Jesus’ life, doesn’t mention his birth at
all. It’s not in John either. Not once in the letters of the Apostle Paul,
or anywhere else in the New Testament do we hear anything about the birth of
Jesus in Bethlehem.
Only Matthew and Luke tell the story, and they do so briefly, in accounts
that vary considerably in detail. In
Matthew, the story has a frightening aura, as King Herod has heard rumors of a
child who might become a king of the Jews.
He orders the massacre of all male children under the age of two – a
terrifying act of cruelty. An angel of
the Lord wakes Joseph, telling him to rush away to Egypt, where the Holy Family
can hide in safety until the threat has passed.
The story in Luke is much gentler, not a tale of flight and
terror. It’s a magical narrative with
shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, with Jesus being born, in a
humble manger – not so much terrorized as impoverished, a marginal person, hardly
the long-prophesied King of the Jews that worried King Herod in Matthew’s
account. There are no Wise Men
traveling from the East with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and
no luminous star that hovers over the spot where Jesus lies. The strangest thing that happens in Luke’s
account is when the shepherds themselves see an angel in the sky and feel "sore
afraid," taken aback by the "glory of the Lord." The angel explains to them the
situation: "Ye shall find the babe
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." From there, it’s all good stuff: Luke goes on "And suddenly there was with the angel a
multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and say: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth
peace, good will toward men."
I’ve always loved the Christmas story, which as a child my
father, a Baptist minister, would read to us in a sonorous voice, always in the
King James Version, which has such deep literary resonance. The birth of Jesus comes at this dark time of
the year, when the winter solstice brings us to a tipping point, with daylight
hours having shrunk to their briefest span.
Christmas is about beginnings, with a child who, though vulnerable,
brings hope to those on the margins of society, those in need, those who find
inspiration as well as comfort in this sacred event.