“Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
-Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
In the film Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell plays a racing driver named Ricky Bobby. Multiple times in the movie he prays to “baby Jesus”:
Dear 8-pound, 6-ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars – woo! – love that money, that I have accrued over this past season….Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen.
When his family tries to remind him that Jesus grew up, Ricky fires back:
Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.
You can’t blame Ricky. Who doesn’t like Christmas Jesus? I find movies about Jesus interesting. How will the filmmaker portray him? What did Jesus look like? How did he sound? We can learn a lot about our perceptions of Jesus from the kinds of films we make about him.
Over the years there’s been a wide range of interpretations of Jesus on screen. Some have noted that in one film made in the seventies, an actor playing Jesus made a creative choice never to blink when the camera was on him. Apparently, the intent was to create an other-worldly sense about the character. It’s a rather ghostly portrayal of Jesus and certainly sets him apart from everyone else on screen.
I’ve seen the movie, and am not so sure about the actor’s choice. Jesus likely blinked just as much as you and me. I’m not absolutely certain, but he probably didn’t wander around trying to win endless staring competitions. He was human.
The first Christian storytellers.
Even though Jesus was human like you and me, he was also clearly special. We know this because of his dramatic historical impact. Jesus’ influence caused lots of stories to spread about him, and spread quickly.
When the first Christians saw the immediate impact Jesus was having, a few of them set out to write his life story down. They wanted to make sure people understood that Jesus wasn’t mythic, or exaggerated. As Christianity expanded, one of the primary concerns of its propagators was that early adopters accepted Jesus’ human nature. Jesus was not a vision, nor was he a ghost. Jesus was physically present. He was real. He blinked.
Even though oral tradition was strong in the ancient world, people still knew it was important to write things down. As the stories spread, the first Christians wrote. These writers ended up producing books that continue to top the world’s bestseller lists today—the gospels. Many famous ancient figures don’t have a comprehensive biography. Jesus has four, and they’ve lasted:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.
These men wrote about the life and times of Jesus. Each of them had a different perspective of him (not unlike filmmakers today), and so they told his story in distinctive ways. The gospel writers were researchers and eyewitnesses, living at ground zero.
Matthew was one of Jesus’ friends and disciples. He was Jewish, so he writes about Jesus from a particularly Jewish perspective. His account of Jesus’ birth and infancy begins with telling the reader who Jesus’ ancestors were. If we want to get to know someone we usually consider where they’ve come from. We still do this today (when going on dates or getting to know a new friend) when we ask, “So, what’s your family like?”
Matthew quotes the Jewish scriptures a lot. These writings are now commonly known as the Old Testament. He points out that Jesus’ life was anticipated long before he came along. Matthew wants his readers to consider that Jesus’ arrival was planned. From Matthew’s point of view, Jesus is crucial to the Israelites’ future because he’s rooted in their past.
Mark was a close friend of both Peter (Jesus’ right-hand man) and Paul (arguably Christianity’s most important thinker and leader of the first century). Mark was probably the first to write the Jesus story down. Peter’s influence in Mark’s gospel is heavy. Mark is a shorter work than Matthew, but they share a lot of material. Scholars think Matthew used Mark as a literary source.
Since Mark was the first to write anything down, likely just twenty to thirty years after Jesus lived, his account is quite abbreviated. His goal was to help Jewish people see, even before Matthew came along, that Jesus was something special. Mark believed that his ancestors anticipated someone like Jesus would turn up one day. He jumped right into his story by quoting one of Israel’s most revered prophets who spoke about Jesus’ life hundreds of years before his arrival. Mark was making a case for the legitimacy of Jesus’ claims.
Luke was a diligent historian and doctor. He was also friends with, and travelled alongside, both Peter and Paul. He begins by saying he’s gone to great pains to make sure all of the details of Jesus’ life are accurate:
“Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you….so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.”
Luke writes with the understanding that Jesus’ story was spreading beyond the Jewish community. He depicts Jesus in a way that non-Jewish people would understand. He explained particular cultural details that would be important for non-Jewish people to grasp as they read the story. The beginning of the book of Luke is sort of like the opening of Star Wars: A New Hope, with the scrolling yellow text and big John Williams score. Luke tells us about the places and people that matter, grounding Jesus’ life in history, and makes mention of the ancient leaders and rulers of Jesus’ day. This gives those of us reading today clarity on the time in which Jesus lived.
Finally, we have John. Being one of Jesus’ best friends, John lived, ate and travelled with him everywhere. He also saw him die, and was emphatic (along with the other three gospel writers) that Jesus came back to life. Though the gospel accounts sometimes differ on timing of events in Jesus’ life, and vary in some of the stories they include, each writer is adamant that Jesus literally came back to life.
John probably wrote last, some sixty years after Jesus walked the earth. Some think one of the reasons John may have taken so long to write was because he was digesting it all. He waited till the end of his life, after computing the magnitude of who Jesus was to him, and only then wrote from a seasoned, holistic perspective. John closes his gospel by saying that Jesus did so many incredible things that he couldn’t possibly write all of them down.
I once heard a biblical scholar remark, “I relate to John like I relate to my wife. I love it, but I do not claim to [fully] understand it.” John’s gospel is a poetic, culturally relevant and a beautifully constructed piece of literature. It’s renowned for its brilliance and mystery, because it’s both wonderfully simple and astonishingly deep. It’s the first book of the Bible I recommend someone read if they’ve never read the Bible before.
Charles Dickens opens A Christmas Carol with the famous and strange statement: “Marley was dead as a doornail.” He goes on to say that it’s vital we’re sure of this fact or we won’t get anything out of story. Two thousand years earlier, John began the tradition of opening Christmas stories with mysterious, poetic and important language:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
One of the most curious components of John’s gospel is that he doesn’t include a birth narrative, at least not a predictable one. His perspective of Jesus’ origin is wider. John gives us some dizzyingly spectacular views of Jesus. We’ll look at some of those later on in part four.
Maybe you’re wondering why any of this matters. Because we want to know where to read about Jesus, we need to understand a little about his biographers. This will help us better appreciate his story. When it comes to detailed narrative surrounding Jesus’ infancy, we read Matthew and Luke. Both Mark and John don’t speak of Jesus’ birth, not because it doesn’t matter, but because they’re coming at the story from different angles. They’re emphasizing different perspectives.
These first Christian writers were adamant that Jesus was both God and human, all at the same time. If any of this is stretching or challenging for you, you’re in good company. Welcome to the party!
Do you know who I am?
Every now and then we hear stories of celebrities or bigwigs asking this question at a restaurant or hotel: “Do you know who I am?” They think they’re superior and deserve special treatment. Everyone likes to have his or her ego stroked. Nobody wants to be the rule; we’d rather be the exception. Deep down, on some level, everyone loves praise, and positive attention. If you’ve ever accepted an imaginary award in your bathroom mirror, dreamt about walking down a red carpet, or fantasized about your boss gushing over your work performance to your co-workers, you know what I mean.
Nero, a Roman emperor, ruled a few years after Jesus lived. He’s famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) for his architectural achievements. Nero built a 103-foot bronze statue of himself that sat in his palace courtyard. To put that in perspective, the Statue of Liberty stands at 111 feet tall. Nero’s likeness was massive. Nero’s palace was so big that ancient graffiti discovered in Rome reads:
“Romans, there’s no more room for you, you have to go to [the nearby village of] Veio.”
Though Nero built a giant gymnasium and numerous courtyards for Romans to enjoy, he still lived segregated from the masses. One historian writes:
“He was completely isolated in a bubble, and you had to go through a million layers to get to him.”
“He wanted to be close to the people, but as their god, not as their friend.”
Nero was a man, but he wanted to live like a god. The gospel writers say Jesus was God, but lived like an ordinary man.
Jesus once told his followers not to emulate the religious leaders of their community because they begged for special attention:
“Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the market- places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets.”
According to his biographers, Jesus didn’t act like this. He didn’t need everyone to tell him he was a big deal, even if he was. His birth narratives show us this quite clearly.
Later on in his biography, Matthew tells us that Jesus asked his friends who the crowds thought he was. This was a question about identity, right in the midst of the miracles, signs and wonders he was preforming. Jesus was extremely popular at this point (as you’d imagine someone who could supernaturally heal sick people would be), and everyone seemed to have a different idea about who he might be.
Then Jesus turned to his friends and asked, “Who do you say I am?” His question is important for a number of reasons. One of them is because it’s a very personal question. Jesus wasn’t bothered about a popularity contest, and he didn’t seem interested in being made into a local ruler. He wanted people to know who he really was. Maybe his birth in a barn holds a couple of clues as to his true nature.
When Jesus asked, “Do you know who I am?” He wasn’t looking for special treatment. That’s clear by how he chose to live. It’s clear in how he chose to be born, and later, die.
That last thought is an important one in our journey. For some of us the idea that Jesus chose to be born, live and die is a new one. It’s an important hinge in understanding Jesus as his first followers knew him.
Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy. When he recorded Jesus’ family line, as you might expect, he included impressive figures from Israel’s past: kings, warriors and lots of other important people. Oddly enough, however, he mentions a prostitute and a couple other interesting characters in the list as well. Jesus’ background sounds impressive, but what’s with all of the regular folk mixed in? What’s the point of that?
Some families have estranged uncles or cousins or grandparents, people no one talks about, and perhaps for good reason. Maybe their reputation is less than shimmering. These people get buried, forgotten, ignored. Not so with Jesus. His obscure (even sketchy) relatives are included, actually highlighted by Matthew, to prove a point.
This rhythm of the spectacular contrasted with the seemingly unspectacular continues in Matthew’s version. Jesus’ birth is announced by an angel, which is exciting. His mother Mary, however, isn’t a queen, movie star or a business tycoon. She’s extremely normal, probably a teenager. So is the man she plans to marry. He is, quite literally, a regular Joe.
Once Jesus is born, mysterious magi (or wise men) show up. They’ve travelled from somewhere in present-day Iran and claim the stars guided them to Bethlehem to see the baby. These astronomers travelled to meet a child, whom they describe as a “king”, and to present the family with extravagant and expensive gifts. Jesus had a bountiful baby shower: gold, and two lavish and pricy spices in frankincense and myrrh. One of those off-road strollers might have been more helpful, however, given the following sequence of events.
Matthew contrasts the swanky baby shower story with an angelic warning to Joseph. He better pack up the family and head to Egypt. A local power-hungry and bloodthirsty ruler named Herod is after the baby. Herod’s heard rumours about a new “king” born in the area, and so he orders every male under the age of two to be slaughtered (they always leave that part out in Christmas cards). Matthew says that God sends an angel to tell Joseph to hit the road. Jesus and his parents become drifters. Travelling to Egypt, Jesus probably learned to speak and walk while living as a refugee.
Notice the contrast. Mysterious and rich astronomers pay homage to a future global superpower in one sequence, who’s on the run (or the crawl, rather) in the next.
It’s impossible to miss Jesus’ humble beginnings. At the same time, it’s clear in the narrative that he’s important. Jesus seems impressive one moment, and lowly the next. This is one of the reasons people debate about his identity. Shouldn’t God be super impressive all of the time?
This trend occurs in the other gospels, too. Thousands flock to hear Jesus’ brilliant and captivating teaching, but he doesn’t gravitate to the popular or influential in the crowd—he focuses on the kids. At the beginning of one week, Jesus rides into town more popular than a prom king, but is dead on a cross at the end of it. Jesus’ importance and power is constantly coupled with his humility.
I remember meeting a famous hockey player at the grocery store when I was a kid, and he signed an autograph for me. I used to take it out and look at it all the time. When extraordinary people choose to humble themselves to associate with or help us, it inspires us. Deep down, we each suspect that everyone puts his or her hockey pants on one leg at a time. Today, this attracts people to Jesus. Nobody likes a show-off, and we lose respect for famous people when they demand special attention. When a great person is humble we love them for it. Humility has become a positive trait in Western culture. So, when people act arrogantly or show off, we generally turn our noses up at them.
This wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day. Back then famous or powerful people wanted to stand out and rise above the riff-raff. They’d throw extravagant parties or give expensive gifts just to prove how rich they were. Powerful people would parade their notoriety. Every move was a political ploy to remind the world of how important they were. Like building a 103-foot statue of yourself, for example.
Humility as we know it now wasn’t a respected quality in Jesus’ time. Powerful people were expected to look and act powerful. If they didn’t, they’d inevitably lose their power. Researchers have recently shown that Jesus’ life was a significant turning point in Western history. Because of Jesus, humility moved from being a negative trait to a positive one. Greatness didn’t spring from having to remind everyone you were great, post-Jesus. We’ll talk about greatness and humility further in part six.
Misery loves company.
The first Christians were clear about Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. Ricky Bobby got something right. Jesus was a real, live infant. If Jesus was human, just like you and me, then we can infer a number of things about his birth and infancy: Jesus likely cried, breastfed, and even wet himself. Have you ever thought about that? Jesus needed his parents to feed him, clothe him, and buy the diapers. In other words, he was vulnerable.
I love visiting the hospital when my friends have kids. There’s nothing like holding a fresh baby. Some of them are little, some of them are on the larger side (poor mom), and some of them look kind of funny. No matter how they look, however, one thing they all feel is fragile. The dependency a new baby has on its caregivers is overwhelming. I’ve seen the looks in my friends’ eyes when they hold their first child. They look different than they did the week before.
I went to church as a kid. We used to this song in Sunday school:
“He’s got the whole world in his hands, he’s got the whole wide world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands…”
Mary and Joseph probably didn’t feel any different than new parents do today. They must have held their new baby, in the midst of all the strange events surrounding his birth, and still felt the weight of responsibility and awe. He was in their hands. Jesus needed taking care of. If any of this sounds sacrilegious, listen to Peter (one of Jesus’ closest friends) and consider what he thought about him.
Peter lived, ate, and travelled with Jesus, probably for about three years. The gospels tell us all about him. We have a couple of letters written by him in the Bible’s New Testament, too. One of Peter’s letters was written to a group of people going through a particularly rough time. They were being thrown into prison, beat up and even burned alive because of their beliefs about Jesus. In the middle of all this, Peter reminded them that Jesus had dealt with hardship and suffering just like they did. Jesus had graduated from the school of hard-knocks, and Peter and his friends were enrolled in the very same program.
“Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. In- stead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering…”
Peter knew firsthand that Jesus lived like a regular person, and suffered in life, just like everyone else. If Peter’s friends suffered, they could take comfort in the fact that Jesus had struggled, bled and experienced how brutal life can be as well.The simple fact that Jesus understood their struggles was comforting to Peter’s friends. The first Christians believed that Jesus knew what pain, loss, heartache and discouragement felt like. He wasn’t immune to everything the world could throw at a person.
If Jesus was just a great teacher, or simply an exemplary social activist, this might bring some encouragement. Misery loves company. When inspiring figures experience trouble we feel a kinship with them. We remember that we’re all in the same boat. A couple of years ago a famous actress tripped over her dress while climbing the stairs to receive her Best Actress Oscar at the Academy Awards. She embraced the moment, didn’t take herself too seriously, and everybody loved her for it. Now whenever we stumble up or down the stairs in public, we can say to ourselves, “Hey, I’m just like Jennifer Law-rence!”
To the first Christians, Jesus was more than a celebrity, great teacher, or fantastic moral example. They actually thought Jesus was God with a capital G. So, when Peter reminds the young Christians that God with a capital G had walked more than a mile in their shoes, they were comforted. The one-true God of the universe, whom Peter and his friends held in staggeringly high regard, wasn’t disconnected from, or disinterested in, regular life. The first Christians believed God had pulled on their skin, lived amongst them, and knew their plight. This God, demonstrated in Jesus, could identify with them, and they with him. Jesus has been there, don’t forget that, said Peter.
Imagine that. A God who gets it.
One barn, please.
The first Christians believed Jesus did everything he did willingly, not begrudgingly. Millions around the world would love this luxury. I don’t recall choosing much as an infant. If Jesus was God, then God chose to be born in a barn. He chose a life of vulnerability and trouble. What does that say about him?
Nativity sets are those little wooden scenes religious folk put on their mantelpieces at Christmas. There’s usually a few figurines in them: a Mary, a Joseph, some shepherds, and maybe a few wise men. Toss in a couple of farm animals, some hay, and maybe an angel straddling the roof, and you’ve got yourself a decent Christmas tableau. In actuality, the stable Jesus was born in was probably more cave-like. At best it was the animal room in someone’s house. Back then, people would designate rooms in their homes to house livestock. There, the animals could be safe and fed.
Have you ever rented a hotel or motel room only to walk inside and realize it’s not what you expected? Maybe it was dirty or smelled like smoke. Maybe it faced the parking lot when you thought it would face the beach. When Mary and Joseph couldn’t get a room in Bethlehem, they ended up laying the newborn baby Jesus in a feeding trough (or manger). This meant they had to bed down with the animals. There was no room for Jesus amongst the humans of Bethlehem. The first noises and smells baby Jesus experienced emanated from animals. His bed frame was a bowl and his mattress was hay. No one brought baby Jesus a stuffed animal, or an “IT’S A BOY!” helium balloon the day he was born (the wise men probably showed up a year or so later).
The gospel writers tell us Jesus wasn’t accidentally allotted to sleep in a grimy motel room. Nobody mixed up the reservation booking. His family slept in the equivalent of a motel parking lot. Astonishingly, we’re lead to believe this was the plan all along.
Jesus developed in utero and pushed through the birth canal. He slept his first night in an animal trough, and became a political refugee before he turned three.
Once we start thinking about the stable, and the hay, and baby Jesus on the lam from nasty old King Herod, we begin to experience the wonder of the Christmas story. Visions of a distant, unfeeling, tyrannical God subside, and a new vision of an intentional, relatable, humble Jesus begins to inform our perspective of the divine.