Dr. Hulbert went to be with the Lord this past spring, and I can only imagine his glee to spend his first Christmas in Heaven and see the celebration from that perspective. For those of us still on Earth, here in a nutshell is what I learned from him that cleared up my Christmas confusion.
What the first Christmas wasn't
- It wasn't in the bleak midwinter. And definitely not on December 25. (No great surprise there, I suspect.)
- It wasn't in a stable where the cattle were lowing.
- It wasn't because of an inhospitable innkeeper.
- It wasn't, most likely, an emergency birth where Joseph was desperate to find a place for Mary to have her baby.
- It wasn't just the two of them, Mary and Joseph, when Jesus was born.
- It wasn't a bunch of old, grizzled shepherds.
- It wasn't "we three kings".
- It wasn't the scene shown above, with the angel on the stable roof, and the shepherd and wise men gathered around.
Does that ruin your Christmas? I hope not! Because what the first Christmas really was is a beautiful picture of what God actually did over two thousand years ago.
What the first Christmas was
- It was probably a warm spring day. Remember, the shepherds were watching their flocks by night, which wouldn't have happened during the winter when they would have been holed up snug and warm inside.
- It was probably in the home of one of Joseph's relatives. Remember, the whole reason they went to Bethlehem was because Joseph was of David's lineage and had to return to the land of his ancestors. He had family there, and middle eastern customs being what they were (and still are), no one would let relatives, especially one ready to give birth, stay with strangers.
- It was probably in the part of the home where the animals would have been kept in the cold winter days (hence the availability of the manger). Because it was spring (see number 1), it would have been clean and available for the parents-to-be. If not for the census, they may have been given the guest room, or katalama (translated as the "inn" in some translations of Luke 2:7, but as "guest room" in the NIV, both here and in Luke 22:11). So, no unfriendly innkeeper, just a guest room already filled with out-of-town relatives.
- It was probably several days until Mary gave birth, as Luke reports that "while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born" (Luke 2:6-7). Not an emergency.
- It was probably a midwife or a female relative who delivered Jesus, because that is the way it was done back then. Women helped other women to deliver, especially a young girl having her first baby. We know there were others there with Mary and Joseph, because Luke says that "all who heard" what the shepherds shared were amazed (Luke 2:18). And speaking of those shepherds...
- Most nativity scenes show the shepherds as older men with graying beards leaning on their staffs as they stare at the night sky filled with angels. In reality, the shepherds were most likely a bunch of young teenage boys, because they were the ones generally put on shepherd duty. Remember how David, before he was king, was in charge of the sheep while his brothers were in the army?
- It was some unknown number of highly educated Gentiles known as Magi who found Jesus by following a star. It was more than one, but while we know of three gifts they brought, there is no evidence that there were "three kings". What is more significant than the number is the fact that God revealed the location of the Jewish Messiah to a bunch of Gentiles. Jesus came for everyone. And speaking of those Magi...
- They weren't there the night that Jesus was born. Matthew makes it clear they had been following the star for up to two years, and it says that Jesus was a "child" (not an infant) when they found him. My son is two this Christmas, and looking at him and imagining what Jesus might have been like at the same age when the Magi found him has put a different spin on Christmas this year.
So...why does this matter? Because, as Dr. Hulbert taught me so many years ago, Jesus really was born, to a real family, in a real culture that was not so different than that of a lot of other cultures in the world today. And it's when we embrace what really happened instead of the pictures on the Hallmark cards that we realize that He came into a messy world to bring sense into our messy lives.
He was born into a loving family environment in a humble home that dirty, young shepherds were comfortable crowding into to see the Savior that the angels had told them about. He was born into a culture that understood hospitality and cared less about making things perfect than about making family feel at home. He was born into a world where people of every culture who were interested in the God of Israel could find Him, and a world where the strong and mighty of the "right" cultural background refused to bow before him.
A Christmas celebration today that embodies the feeling of the first Christmas is one that embraces family, reaches out to those in need, invites in the humble, and doesn't hesitate to share the good news of Jesus' birth with everyone, no matter their background or standing. And it is one that celebrates the miracles and the intersection of Heaven and Earth that holy night with the desperation of a heart longing for a Savior for this dark world.
As you prepare to celebrate His birth this week, may God fill your heart with wonder for what He did, and how, that first Christmas so many years ago.