Last night CBS reran "The Mystery of Christmas," which cast doubt, or at least tried to, on some of the more popular parts of the Christmas narratives, including the shepherds, the magi, and so on. Ben Witherington, III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, did his usual fine job of not only pointing out the credible historical evidence for many of these specifics, but also reminding viewers that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Did the birth of Christ look like this portrait above? Perhaps it looked exactly like that. Perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, it was more likely to have taken place in a cave, with the manger being a stone trough; or even in Nazareth, and during an entirely different time of the year. (That shepherds were in the fields with their flocks suggests a springtime birth.) If you want a fuller story on the historical backgroud of the birth of Christ, which can add to our appreciation of the event and supplement our prayer, you might try two magisterial books: Raymond Brown’s "The Birth of the Messiah" or John Meier’s "A Marginal Jew." Either will give you all you’ve ever wanted to know about the Nativity. In the meantime, however, you might enjoy this passage from Henri Nouwen’s book "Gracias," written during his sojourn in Latin America: "God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy. This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us. The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be. A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone. Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him-whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend-be our companion." Merry Christmas from the editors and staff of America magazine. May the joy of the newborn Christ fill your heart with hope.
The Mystery of Christmas