Much is made by some critics of the fact that Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25, implying that the story was another religious “fairy-tale” concocted in later years to support Christianity. But it is an irrelevant point: the historic fact underlying the entire Christmas story stands, whether people like to change B.C. and A.D. to B.C.E. and C.E. (Before the Common Era and Common Era respectively). The reality of the birth of Jesus, and everything that it has meant for the human race, has been acknowledged for two millennia, and latter day critics find it hard to argue that all previous generations got it wrong, or were not as intelligent and discerning as these same critics.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth turned the world upside down, revolutionised the status of women, gave dignity and social position to the individual, and led to the development of schools, hospitals, trade unions, healthcare, and the recognition of human and civil rights. That may sound like a wild claim to make, but history confirms it. One statement by Paul in his letter to the Galatian Christians states it clearly: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. The astonishing nature of these words can be easily missed now because we take what they say for granted. Of course, all are equal under the law, of course human and civil rights apply to all, regardless. But that was not the case when Paul wrote what he did.
Christianity was the major force which changed society from a strictly hierarchical system where everyone “knew their place”, to one which we all recognise as being more just and equal, at least in theory. There is no doubt that there were those who called themselves Christians who fought that revolution: who held on to slaves, who treated women as non-persons, who waged war against those they considered inferior, or even sub-human. That is a tragic fact of history too. But what needs to be remembered is that those people in their actions were not following the clear teaching of Jesus, they were disobeying him. This is not my opinion: the written record of the New Testament states it in very clear terms.
The fact that time itself is measured in terms of the birth of Jesus, before and after, is a testament to the importance of that unique event in history. That a baby born in a stable to poor parents from a small village in the Middle East, a man who never left his homeland aside from a short period of exile as a baby, who was executed as a heretic and a traitor, whose closest followers fled in fear for their lives, but who later emerged to preach his Resurrection throughout the known world, could have had the impact on history that he has had, is something that needs explanation.
And what Christians have provided as an explanation for the past two thousand years is that this baby, this man, was God incarnate: that he died to restore our relationship with God, taking our place in death to provide forgiveness and justice, and that he rose from the dead and lives still. Yes, it’s a difficult, and often an apparently ridiculous sounding claim to many: but to those who have come to know the reality of it, whose lives have been changed, “born again”, as Jesus described it, to us it is the very reason for all we do and how we live. Not always keeping in step with him, but always knowing that we are his, forgiven and restored as a gift, not because we’re better than others, or more spiritual, but because we know we’re not. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
I’ve always thought it a wonderful thing that we give gifts to mark the birth of Jesus. Usually, the gifts are for the one whose birthday it is: but at Christmas, everyone else gets the presents. That seems only right. Non-Christians can celebrate the season as they wish, with no reference to Jesus. Christians know that every day is Christmas, and Easter, and Pentecost, because “Once in Royal David’s city” in a stable, the human race was given a gift that has never ceased giving. So, whether you find this simple nonsense, or understand exactly what I mean, have a Merry Christmas, it’s a Gift.