In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
First of all, Merry Christmas! If you are reading this on Christmas Day itself, well done! I’m tempted to say you should be enjoying yourself instead, but reflecting on the Gospel is surely a good way to celebrate.
We know the stories around the birth of Jesus very well; they’re comforting and familiar readings we enjoy hearing at Carol Services, ideally in a candle-lit church. However, if we read carefully all sorts of difficulties emerge. Matthew and Luke have mutually contradictory stories, while many scholars consider that historically they don’t add up (there’s no record of a census at the right time.) Meanwhile, the writer of John’s gospel doesn’t even seem to be aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (see John 7.40-44).
So if we read these stories as we would a modern history book they soon unravel. But that’s to miss a much bigger, and more profound, point. In piecing together their texts from various sources the four Gospel writers had to make all sorts of tricky literary and theological decisions. How could they possibly make clear that Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfilment of God’s promises? The details all have symbolic meaning, and show just how amazing the birth of this one child was. Bethlehem links Jesus back to King David, the stable shows Jesus on the side of the dispossessed and the poor. All of this is astounding and powerful testimony to a quite remarkable claim: that God really was born in the person of Jesus Christ. Looked at critically, that seems very unlikely indeed. But we believe it happened. The Gospel writers believed it, and they used every tool they had to proclaim it; these stories are theology, not history.
So enjoy your Christmas dinner, enjoy watching Doctor Who, and remember too the God who came down to earth to live with us.
In the midst of our Christmas, whether it is noisy and crowded or quiet and intimate, remind us, O God, that the celebrations are to help us to remember and give you thanks – the God who loves us and sent His son, born as our saviour, so long ago and far away, and who still lives in our hearts today. Amen.
The Rev’d Nick Jones is minister of Heswall URC & St. George’s URC, Thornton Hough, in Mersey Synod.