The Christmas Story

Posted on December 22, 2013


Christmas, of course, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, sometime a little over 2000 years ago in the town of Bethlehem in the province of Judea, then a part of the Roman Empire.

To say that his life transformed the world is perhaps the epitome of understatement. In fact, the world, for the most part, observes a dating system that puts his life at the center.

Even after A.D. and B.C. (Anno Domini,  or in the year of the Lord; and Before Christ) were secularized in the recent past to B.C.E. and C.E. (Before the Common Era and Common Era), most Christians quietly substitute “Christian” for “common” and so we continue the practice of marking the calendar with relation to the birth of Jesus.

Christians, by the way, are the largest religion by numbers in the world, numbering about 2.18 billion people in a global population of 6.9 billion. The next in line are Muslims with 1.6 billion, representing approximately 1/4 of the world’s population, as opposed to approximately 1/3 Christian according to the well respected Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. And for those who really like numbers, the fastest growing religion, virtually any way you measure it, in the world is Christianity.

But it didn’t start that way, perhaps stating the obvious. Jesus was born to a humble Jewish family on the outskirts of the mighty Roman Empire. His birth is described in the books of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament as a miraculous intervention by God into the affairs of men.

His birth as the Messiah come to deliver the Jewish people from oppression was prophesied in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Isaiah. The Jews were a relatively small nation of people in the lands of some of the great ancient civilizations extending from Egypt to Mesopotamia in an area of world we know as the Middle East today.

The promise given to the Jews, who believed there was only one God and so were monotheistic, was that they were God’s chosen people eventually to bring all to belief in their God, Jehovah. But they were not necessarily a proselytizing or evangelizing people.

When the Roman Empire, led by legions commanded by Pompey and other great generals, conquered Judea and surrounding regions, they put the Jews under their authority. Once more, as in earlier invasions by conquering empires, the Jews were forced to submit to a foreign invader. And once more, they chafed and grew rebellious. And they reached back into their religious literature—largely the books later incorporated into the Old Testament—to find prophecies of a deliverer, a messiah, a warrior, like their famous King David, to deliver them from the Romans.

The birth of this child, which Christians celebrate December 25th, in three days, was modest. Born in a humble lodging house, laid in a manger since there was no crib, the child was given the name of Jesus by his parents, a carpenter named Joseph and his young mother Mary, probably just barely a teenager when he was born, her first baby.

He was special, just like all babies are, or should be, to all parents. But there were some truly unique circumstances surrounding his birth.

One, his mother was a virgin. The baby boy was conceived by a miracle, a divine intervention by God in the affairs of men. God, in fact, had sent his only begotten Son—Jesus– to save the Jews, and all people, from their sin.

Most of what we know about Jesus’s birth and early childhood are in the first few chapters of the books of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament. Those books interweave history and religion, the first being usually thought of as what “really” happened, and the second being the story of God’s intervention into the affairs of humans, often accompanied by miracles and other supernatural events, like the raising of the dead and healings.

From the strictly historical perspective, Jesus Christ was a real man who really lived and walked the earth, just like the Roman general and statesman, Julius Caesar, who helped create the Roman Empire a few decades before Jesus was born.

Jesus grew to manhood quietly, but began his public ministry sometime in his early thirties. He taught, he preached, he healed, he forgave sins, he performed miracles, he announced the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and he called on all to believe in him as the son of God come to earth to redeem mankind from sin and death. The world would never be the same again.

He preached peace, and love, and faith, and came as a servant to all men. He was the Messiah, and his message transcends time. It began in the little town of Bethlehem as the beloved hymn says, in a corner of the mighty Roman Empire. Today the Roman Empire is history, but Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is very much alive and with us, still transforming individuals, one by one, and so transforming the world.

Published Sunday December 22, 2013 in my column The Port Rail as An Understated Birth Changed the World in the OpEd section of The Tuscaloosa News.