The tree is up, and the lights are twinkling. There is excitement abroad as the celebrations begin. Who dares to deny the delight, grumble at the good cheer, quash the carols, tear down the tinsel, be churlish to the children and be a grump, a Grinch, or a bah humbug Scrooge?
Not me. And yet, in the preparations of Advent, it seems a Christian duty to put on the brakes at least a little. Our Christian feast has been hijacked by the secularists. Our culture has been appropriated.
The angels have been replaced with flying reindeer. St. Nicholas has become a fat, Coca-Cola swilling imposter, and instead of shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flock by night, our lawns are cluttered with garish inflatable elves, singing snowmen, and grinning cartoon characters. As a kind of magical blessing, the whole commercialized celebration of consumerism is sprinkled with sparkly fairy dust.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In making Christmas the most magical time of the year, it feels like our sad, post-Christian culture is clinging, like a lost child with a tattered teddy bear, to some sort of nostalgic longing for the supernatural. “If we ramp up the magic of Christmas and pump up the sentimentality, we might just feel, once again, that there is transcendence and the supernatural after all…”
It is easy enough to understand where the magic comes from because the original story has plenty of charm and seemingly magical elements. The nativity narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are replete with angelic appearances, mysterious wizards from a faraway land who follow a miraculous star, messages from angels in dreams, and elements that pull at everyone’s heartstrings: a mother and a newborn, a father desperate to help, simple peasants and wicked kings, a dozy donkey, a gentle ox, and sweet baby lambkins. What’s not to love and wonder at?
From the earliest times, the story of Christ’s birth attracted elaboration and the addition of magical decoration. It began in the second century in the retelling of the tale by the author of the Protoevangelium of James, and with Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and then Origen and Tertullian.
The gnostic apocryphal gospels, crafted in the following four centuries, picked up the Christmas bauble and ran with it. Influenced by Manichaeism, documents like the third-century Legend of Aphroditianus uses the story of Christ’s birth as a springboard into a magical fantasy.
The legend begins with the account of a miracle in the temple of a pagan goddess in Persia at the time of Christ’s birth. According to the myth, the statues in the temple dance and sing and announce that the goddess Hera has been made pregnant by Zeus.
Suddenly, a star appears above the statue of the goddess Hera. A voice from heaven is heard, and all the dancing statues fall on their faces. The wise men of the court take this to mean that a King is to be born in Judea. That evening, the god Dionysus confirms their interpretation.
Then the king sends the Magi to Judea with gifts, the star pointing them along their way. The story tells of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem and how they meet the Jewish leaders and finally Mary and Jesus. They return to Persia bringing a portrait of Jesus and Mary and put it in the temple where the star first appeared.
Since then, magical accretions of all sorts have been added to Matthew’s and Luke’s simple tales like decorations on the Christmas tree. Many of the decorations have entered into the story innocently and are now accepted as unquestioned parts of the whole.
Here’s an example: Mary rode a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, right? Sorry. That detail comes from the Protoevangelium of James. The donkey doesn’t get a mention in Matthew or Luke. Neither does the ox, by the way. The donkey and the ox entered the story from early Church preachers who spotted a fulfillment of Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”
In my new book, The Secret of the Bethlehem Shepherds, I have tried to trim away some of the magical additions to the Christmas story to reveal the hidden history. The book is the product of a two-month sabbatical in Jerusalem and is a follow-up of my similar book on the Magi.
Why did I bother dismantling some much-beloved details of the traditional Christmas story? Because the magical additions to the story lend themselves to the conclusion that the whole thing is a fantastic invention of the early Church in an attempt to emphasize that Jesus of Nazareth was not only a wonder-worker, but a divine being.
Modernist scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas—What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth are skeptical about the historical foundation of the infancy narratives in favor of seeing them as pious parables—magical stories with a wonderful meaning.
This approach, of course, has been the agenda for the whole modernist attack on the Faith from the beginning of the last century. The historicity of the entire Gospel account has been questioned—and no part of the Gospel is more ridiculed and dismissed as magical nonsense than the Christmas story.
My attempt to find solid historical details beneath the tinsel has been dismissed by the modernists. But ironically, it has also caused dismay among traditionalists. The modernists are dismayed by the mere idea that the infancy narratives have a historical basis, while the traditionalists are fretful that the wise men may not actually have been named Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior and that it is unlikely that their relics are at Cologne, or that there was probably no rustic, medieval tavern in first-century Bethlehem with a curmudgeonly innkeeper.
Nevertheless, I continue to contend that the magical myths and pretty traditions of Christmas are enjoyable but that we should also make an effort to understand and experience the historical reality which is the true wonder of Christmas—that God was made flesh and dwelt among us: that the Lord of history stepped into human history and changed it forever from the inside out.