Is the birth of Christ an historical event?

Scripture Readings

The answer, of course, is a definite “yes.” There are few, even among the fiercest critics of Christianity and the gospels who would deny that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical person. So, if, today, we choose to celebrate his birth, we are commemorating an actual event. Of course, another question arises: how historically accurate is the narration that we just read from the Gospel of Luke? As you know, when we’re dealing with the Scriptures, the answer is always the same: it doesn’t matter.

Contemporary history pretends to be objective as though the perspectives and biases of the observers didn’t exist. History, from the point of view of the authors of the Scriptures, is, in many ways, more honest. They weren’t especially concerned with the facts of what happened. They wanted to convey what the events meantwhy they were important. To do that, they needed to take imagery and terminology from popular culture. In many ways, biblical history as we find it in the Scriptures has more in common with modern-day poetry than contemporary prose.

With that understanding, we can turn to Luke’s infancy narrative. It was evidently written long after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was then that the full revelation of who the Christ would be was made clear. Luke knew it, and he couldn’t un-know it. Therefore, he started with some basic facts, common knowledge, and accepted tradition, and he wove it into a narrative that would highlight the critical points that would set the stage for Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Each aspect was chosen and designed to resonate with his listeners, and to instruct them on the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, and therefore his parents, Mary and Joseph, were from Nazareth in the territory of Galilee. Nobody of note was expected to come from Nazareth. Even his disciple, Nathaniel, was quoted as saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:45] Everyone knew that the savior-King—the Messiah—would come out of Bethlehem in the territory of Judea. It was, after all, the birthplace of King David. People understood that the Messiah—the anointed savior-King—would be another King David, one of his progeny not only by blood but by his role in the salvation of God’s people from their enemies. Here is the prophesy from the prophet Micah [5:1-2], known by every Israelite, that inspired their hopes as individuals and as a people:

But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah,
too small to be among the clans of Judah,
From you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler of Israel;
Whose origin is from of old,
from ancient times.

There’s more to the prophesy that Luke used to drive home his message: the image of the shepherd. That image is critical to the understanding of the meaning of the infancy narrative. Abraham, the father of the nation, was a nomadic herder—a shepherd. His tribe—his descendants—were also nomadic herders. Moses tended the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro [Exodus 3:1]. The prophets were shepherds. Amos the prophet said [7:14], “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.” King David himself was a shepherd boy, called to shepherd the flock of Israel. Micah, in the two verses following the passage we just quoted [5:3-4], calls the one who is to come a shepherd:

He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock
by the strength of the Lord,
in the majestic name of the Lord, his God;
And they shall remain, for now his greatness
shall reach to the ends of the earth;
he shall be peace.

            It’s not at all coincidental that shepherds play a dominant role in Luke’s narrative. Jesus is born in a cave where shepherds lived and sheltered their sheep. He was born among the sheep because there was no room for them in the καταλυμα (kataluma)—the lean-to built at the opening of the cave to house the shepherds and their families.

Can you see how Luke was linking Jesus to the house and lineage of David, locating his birth in Bethlehem, the City of David, and surrounding his birth with shepherds and their sheep? He’s saying in poetic form that this child is the promised, anointed King, another David, who will save God’s people.

What about the angels? When was the last time you saw an angel of the Lord? It’s not a common occurrence. We might ask, what are angels and what function do they serve in our Scriptures? Essentially, they are personifications of God’s messages. They appear whenever God has something important—something transformational—to say to his people. What do these messengers look like? Artists have tried portraying angels in all sorts of ways, usually with wings and halos. It’s all imaginary. There’s no answer to that question. What we can answer is, what do God’s messengers feel like? Luke tells us that “the glory of the Lord shone around [the shepherds].” That “glory of the Lord”—that כבך־יהוה (kabod-Yahweh)—expresses the awe and wonder that we talked about last Sunday’s homily. It’s our reaction to the tangible Presence of God. That’s what God’s angelic messenger feels like. The message is that the savior-King, the son of David, is here. Luke puts three important titles for the infant of Bethlehem into the mouth of the angel. He calls the child “savior,” also, “the Christ” (meaning the Messiah, the anointed King), and finally, “Lord.” Remember that the term “Lord” was always used to replace God’s proper name, Yahweh. Saying that Jesus is Lord is the same as saying that Jesus is Yahweh. In the end, the whole narrative was written to express Luke’s faith that the infant Jesus was, indeed, the divine savior-King whom Israel had been longing for. And there you have it.

It is wondrous. But it’s even more wondrous when we realize that the moment of Jesus’s birth is not relegated to a moment two thousand years ago. God messes with time. We are all poor shepherds—trying to tend the wayward moments of our lives like sheep. By the grace of God, any time we want—like right now—we can experience the כבך־יהוה (kabod-Yahweh), the glory of God, shining around us, and we can hear in it God’s message: “Today, a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” We call this experience ανεμνησις (anamnesis). It means a commemoration, but not in the sense of going back in your mind to a former event. It means bringing a past event into the present so that we can live it anew. It’s how we celebrate the eucharist, and it’s how we celebrate the birth of our savior-King here and now. We can once again feel the glory of the Presence of God and join our voices with God’s messengers as they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to [us, his children,] on whom his favor rests.”

Get articles from H. Les Brown delivered to your email inbox.