The gospel of Luke begins with the story of the birth of John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Zechariah are elderly and without a child. Yet Elizabeth conceives and an angel tells Zechariah that the child's name will be John. Six months later the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to explain that she will give birth to a child with the help of the Holy Spirit and to tell her that Elizabeth is also pregnant. When Mary visits Elizabeth, the older woman feels her babe leap in her womb. Elizabeth says to Mary, "Blessed are you among women . . .." Then Mary sings praises to God, in words which have come to be known as the Magnificat — words that bring to mind (for those who know the Bible well) Hannah's song of praise after her prayers for a son have been answered with Samuel's birth.
The story of the birth of Jesus follows. We hear of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, finding no room in the inn, and taking shelter in a stable. During the night Jesus is born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, and shepherds are directed by angels to come and adore him.
The Christmas story in the gospel of Luke gives a prominent role to women, unlike most of the narratives in the Bible. The story also emphasizes the humble birth of Jesus in a stable, attended only by his mother and father, and then by shepherds. At the very beginning of Luke's gospel we read that the author is writing his account for Theophilus, a Greek-speaking Christian. If we know our Bible well, we also know that the Acts of the Apostles is a companion volume written by the same author. Thus the story of Elizabeth and Mary, and their children born in Judea, is the beginning of a story that includes not only accounts of the ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus but also of the conversion of Saul (who becomes the apostle Paul) and of Paul's missionary work until his imprisonment in Rome.
What meanings might this birth story have had for Theophilus and the other Greek-speaking Christians of his largely Gentile church? We know that there were conflicts in the early church between Jewish and predominately Gentile congregations. The Jewish Christians led by Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, emphasized the Jewish law that they believed Jesus had sought to renew. Gentile Christians and many Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, on the other hand, believed that Jesus had freed them from Jewish law altogether. The birth story in the gospel of Luke sets the birth of Jesus within the Roman Empire at the time of a census decreed by Caesar Augustus. When Luke's narrative concludes in Acts 28 with Paul proclaiming new life in Christ in Rome to both Jews and Gentiles, it seems clear that the humble and Jewish beginnings of Jesus are part of God's plan for the whole world.
In the second century some Christians began to claim that Jesus was a divine being who merely appeared to be human. Luke's gospel became a defense against this "Gnostic" heresy, because the birth story emphasizes Mary's pregnancy and the human birth of Jesus. Yet we don't hear of a Christmas celebration in the life of the church until the fourth century, when it is listed in an almanac as the Feast of the Nativity. Most likely this feast began in churches dominated by Gentiles during the reign of Constantine, after he was converted to Christianity in 312. In the Julian calendar of that period the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated on December 25th, which was the winter solstice. As the birth story in the gospel of Luke does not mention any date, the winter solstice was undoubtedly chosen to coincide with the pagan celebration of the rebirth of the sun. Thus, Jesus was proclaimed in the Roman Empire as the "true sun."
Probably the Christians in Rome were unaware that shepherds in Palestine did not tend sheep in the fields during the winter. When Christian scholars in the Middle Ages were confronted with this factual inconsistency, they concluded that the shepherds had stayed in the fields because of the winter solstice. European Christians adapted the story in other ways. The manger was represented in painting and creche scenes as a wooden rack or "crib." But in Palestine it would have been a stone ledge, trough or a niche in the wall of a stable, in which fodder was placed. In Middle English the Feast of the Nativity was called "Christes masse," that is, the mass of Christ. This eventually was shortened to "Christmas."
It is interesting to recall that after the Protestant Reformation, Christmas was rejected by most of the Protestant denominations because it emphasized the baby Jesus rather than the risen Christ. In 1659 the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made the observance of Christmas a punishable offense, and Protestant suspicion continued in some denominations well into the 19th century. It was the Roman Catholic Church that kept the "Christ mass" tradition alive until the holiday became acceptable to all Christians and to many others as well.
If this is some of what Christmas has meant in the life of the church, as the story is told in the gospel of Luke, what meanings might it have for us today? I suggest, first, that as a very human story of mothers becoming pregnant and giving birth it reminds us that life, as we know it, is the medium in which God chooses to dwell. Jesus is the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel of Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit moved and inspired him throughout his life. The Acts of the Apostles describes how the Holy Spirit also guided the churches after Jesus ascended to heaven. Luke's gospel tells us that in the Holy Spirit, we are one with Jesus, and with God.
Second, the gospel of Luke reminds us that poverty is not a mark of human failure or divine rejection. The origins of the church are very humble and poor. The gospel story shows that the kingdom of God is not for those who claim to have earned salvation because of their success in the world, but for those who have faith.
Third, this story of women, a baby in a manger, and shepherds in the fields who come in wonder to the stable, should elicit in us a renewed sense of awe and gratitude for life. Each child is a wondrous creation, and the birth of a child is cause for joy. The Christmas story in the gospel of Luke points to the miracle of life-to the life of Jesus, but also to our lives — for, as Paul reminds us, we are the church, which is the body of the living Christ.
At Christmas, therefore, we celebrate the birth of the true sun, the light that enters the darkness and is not overcome by it, the life we know together in Christ, and the joy we share with one another and with the world.