Grasping the greatness of God’s self-giving love.

No christian festival is celebrated more widely and often more superficially outside as well as inside the church than Christmas. As the observance of the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas stands at the heart of the story of redemption that is uniquely unfolded in the Bible. Here in the event of the Nativity is the center of human history. Of all who have ever lived, none is closer to human life and destiny than Christ. If “the hinge of history is Jesus Christ,” as Charles Malik has said, it is because of what happened at Bethlehem nearly 2,000 years ago when the living God invaded human history through the Incarnation.

The celebration of Christmas came comparatively late in church history—not, in fact, until the fourth century. The word “Christmas” does not appear in the Bible, although the Jewish December festival, Hanukkah, is mentioned in the New Testament: “Then came the Feast of Dedication” (John 10:22, NIV).

Not only is there no biblical mention of the word Christmas, but the Bible gives us no mandate for celebrating Jesus’ birth, as it does for the sacraments or ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, which by Christ’s own command were observed from the very beginning of the church.

Celebration of the other great festivals of the church—Easter with its joyful celebration of the resurrection preceded by Good Friday with its moving remembrance of the crucifixion, and the Feast of Pentecost with its celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the infant church—while also not prescribed in the New Testament, goes back much further than the Festival of Christmas, perhaps to the end of the first century or the beginning of the second.

To trace the origins of Christmas as the Festival of the Nativity, as it is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary, is an exercise in early church history. Scholars, in fact, are by no means agreed on the details of how it developed. The earliest reference to December 25 as the date for the Nativity occurs in the Philocalian calendar, which refers to its Roman observance in A.D. 336. But recognition of December 25 had been preceded by that of another date—January 6, when Epiphany was celebrated—first in relation to the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan and later in relation to the coming of the wise men, or Magi, to worship the infant Jesus. By the end of the fourth century there is evidence of the widespread celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25. For example, Chrysostom, in a sermon preached at Antioch about A.D. 386, said that the feast on December 25 was known from Thrace to Cadiz. But though December 25 has found uniform acceptance—except in the Armenian Church, which celebrates the Nativity on January 6—it is, of course, only the traditional date. We have no real evidence for the exact month and day of Jesus’ birth. Nor can we be completely certain of its year. Yet good evidence brings us close to the actual date, which was probably 4 or 5 B.C. (though some scholars say 7 or 8 B.C.).

Article continues below

That the Christmas festival had certain pagan relationships is well known. One of the great festivals of ancient Rome was related to the winter solstice, celebrated on December 25 as the Natal Day of the Unconquerable Sun and tied to the Persian religion of Mithraism, one of Christianity’s early rivals. The church took over this day to turn the attention of Christians from the old heathen festival to the celebration of the “sun of righteousness.”

Likewise, many of our cherished Christian customs have non-Christian origins. The merriment and giving of gifts, especially to children, may reflect the Roman Saturnalia, celebrated from December 17 to 24. As for the use of greenery and lights, this goes back to the celebration of the Kalends of January in ancient Rome. The Yule customs have ancient Germano-Celtic backgrounds. Many European countries have contributed to the Christmas observance. The crèche came from Italy; the Christmas tree originated in Germany in the late sixteenth century and was established in England early in the nineteenth century by Prince Albert; we are indebted to Holland for Santa Claus.

Because of the extrabiblical origins of certain aspects of the Christmas festival, some Christians in the past have suppressed its celebration. During Cromwell’s time in seventeenth-century England it was banned by Parliament, and in old New England the celebration of Christmas was officially forbidden.

Few Christians today, however, even among the most conservative groups, would go to these lengths. Many of our happy Christmas customs have long since lost their pagan connotations; perhaps it is through God’s common grace that they have found a place in the celebration of Christ’s birth. As for the present-day commercialization of this beloved festival, typified by the endless repetition of Christmas carols in shopping centers with scarcely a thought for the meaning of their words, this is not celebration; it is desecration!

Christmas is like a many-faceted jewel, and surely one of its loveliest facets is the way it has enriched music and the arts and literature. The distinguished music critic, Paul Hume, said of a Christmas performance in Washington Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s “A Boy Is Born”: “One of the wonderful things regarding this time of year is that there is an endless treasure of beautiful music for it, touching all moods and telling the central story in many different ways.” Indeed, if Christ had never been born, culture would have been immeasurably impoverished. Have you ever looked at a painting like Raphael’s “Alba Madonna,” or read a poem like Milton’s “Ode on the Nativity,” or heard Handel’s Messiah, and thought, “This would never have been had Christ not been born”?

Article continues below

But turn from the facets to the jewel itself, that authentic historical event of the Nativity. Here we must go back to the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, the source documents for the events on which Christmas depends. They are first of all, authentic historical documents. New Testament scholarship has traveled a long way since the early nineteenth century, when F. C. Baur and the Tübingen critics in Germany denied the authenticity of most of the New Testament. A few years ago W. F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University declared that the whole of the New Testament was written between A.D. 40–80. And more recently the Cambridge scholar J. A. T. Robinson has argued that all of the New Testament books must be dated before A.D. 70.

Despite their many differences, the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke have these things in common: that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of a virgin named Mary; that Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph, who was of the Davidic line; that Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit was supernaturally announced; that the child who was born was the Christ, the promised Messiah, for the Greek christos from which we get the word “Christ” is the equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah,” to whose coming the Old Testament points; and finally, that the child born at Bethlehem was the Savior.

But what about the variations between these two accounts of the Christmas event? It is Matthew who tells us most about Mary’s betrothed husband, Joseph. It is in Matthew’s Gospel that we read the story of the Magi and the guiding star that has long fascinated astronomers and been the subject of Christmas displays in various planetariums. It is Matthew who also tells us of King Herod’s desire to kill the infant Jesus.

Article continues below

As for Luke, we owe to him our knowledge of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary that she would be the virgin mother of Jesus. Luke tells us of the census that took Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We learn also from him of the crowded inn and the manger where the baby was laid, and through him we hear the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

The two accounts do not contradict, but complement each other. Taken together they give us in words of restraint and simplicity that go straight to our hearts the most beautiful story ever told.

Moreover, no one can read these narratives carefully without recognizing how Jewish they are. Matthew begins with a genealogy. He sees Christ’s birth as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, and Jeremiah. He reports that the child was to be called Jesus—the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “The Lord (Yahweh) is salvation,” and also identifies him with the prophetic name “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.”

In a different but no less unmistakable way Luke’s account of the Nativity is steeped in the Old Testament. He begins with the birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, and with his wife Elizabeth, a relative of Mary. After the annunciation, Mary visits Elizabeth, who honors her as the mother-to-be of the Messiah. So Luke gives us Mary’s wonderful song of praise, the Magnificat, so reminiscent of Hannah’s song before the birth of Samuel. Again, it is from Luke that we know that Jesus was circumcised in the temple and later presented there with his mother in obedience to the law of Moses.

This Hebrew matrix of Nativity narratives shows the integral relation of the Christmas event to the whole of biblical history. This most marvelous of happenings when, as Christians have always believed, the living God himself entered human life, takes us to the heart of the biblical view of history. This is not a cyclical view but a linear one, moving forward to an end. Above all, the Bible is the revealed record of God’s redemptive work in history, culminating in the life, death, resurrection, and coming again of the Christ who was born in Bethlehem.

Like all the events in redemption history, the Christmas event is both particular and universal. He who was born on the first Christmas day is more than a denominational figure. He is too great to be the exclusive possession of any church or any theology. In his universal significance he is greater than any creed, important though creeds are.

Article continues below

What, then, is Christmas really about? What does it say to us in 1979? Such questions have many answers, and your answer and mine inevitably reflect who we are at the deepest level of our being. But allow me to answer them briefly out of my convictions as you must answer them out of yours.

Christmas shows us the supreme expression of love—the love of God himself who cared enough for us and all mankind to enter into human life in his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. For, as Paul said: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.” Once we grasp the greatness of God’s self-giving love, then, Christmas tells us, we must love others as God has loved us.

John said it with beautiful simplicity in his first epistle:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us; He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:7–11, NIV).

The warmth and joy and peace of Christmas must be shared, not hugged to ourselves. For the world today, with all its turmoil and tragedy, Christmas is the eloquent reminder that God has not given up on humanity. It is the enduring assurance that he is involved in our affairs, that he really does enter into our human life and history through his own dear Son.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.