Last week I read a headline on The Independent news website that said:
‘One in five Brits does not know Jesus Christ born on 25 December’.
I have good news for them – he almost certainly wasn’t!
In the story we hear again each Christmas, we remember that the shepherds were out watching their flocks by night – it was much more likely to have been springtime when the sheep and their lambs needed more protection from predators, but we simply don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth.
The rest of the news article revealed that in fact 20% of people surveyed didn’t know what we celebrate at Christmas – not that they didn’t ‘know’ Jesus was born on 25th December, but that they didn’t know it marks the celebration of his birth.
So what do we celebrate, and how did we come to celebrate it in December?
- a baby born in poverty
- a family who relied on the hospitality of strangers and fled persecution to seek refuge in a strange country
- a boy who ran away from his parents
- a man who lived in obscurity for most of his life until he began to preach a radical message of peace, justice and love – a message that would eventually get him killed.
The survey on which the article in The Independent was based was done by the History Channel to mark the launch of its new four-part documentary series The Real Jesus of Nazareth. It is hosted by Robert Powell, the actor most famous for playing the title role in the 1970s TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth which was first broadcast forty years ago.
People my age and older could be forgiven for thinking the historical Jesus looked like this pale-skinned, blue-eyed European, when in fact he was more likely to be ‘a man of middle-eastern appearance’ like those some of our politicians today would like to keep out.
Jesus was notorious for spending time with people whom the leaders of his day found scandalous – women, prostitutes, tax collectors, widows, foreigners, children – the least, the lowest and the lost of his society. He became known as the Son of God – yet he also came to show that we are all beloved children of God [1 John 3:2].
He told us:
‘I have come so you might have life in all its fullness’ [John 10:10].
He showed us how to live fully, love wastefully and be all we can be, so we might help others do the same.
He lived on the edge of his society, with courage, integrity, dignity and hope, to show us how to do the same.
‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ [John 8:12].
So one of the reasons we celebrate his birthday in mid-winter is the same reason our pre-Christian ancestors celebrated their feasts at this time for thousands of years – on 25th December, the darkest day is past, and the light will come again, in more ways than one.