by Dale Reeves
A number of years ago as we were celebrating Christmas with my in-laws in Columbia, Tennessee, an adult brought out a birthday cake. One of my brothers-in-law (who shall remain nameless) immediately questioned, “A birthday cake? We’ll confuse the children!” All of the other adults in the house gazed at him with a look that said, “DUH! It’s Jesus’ birthday, dude!” We’ve never let him forget that classic memory. He responded, “Oh, yeah, right.” And we proceeded to sing along with our children, “Happy birthday, Jesus!”
Now we realize that Jesus was most likely not born on December 25. Many scholars have pointed out that the presence of sheep grazing in the fields of Bethlehem might indicate that Jesus was born sometime in the spring or the summer. No one knows for sure. Researchers have speculated that the Roman Catholic Church chose December 25 in the fourth century because it ties in with the winter solstice and Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to the Roman deity Saturn—a festival in which people feasted and exchanged gifts. This was during the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. But Christmas celebrations weren’t really popularized until hundreds of years later.
Enter the Nativity
At a time when Christians began replacing pagan winter festivals with celebrations of Christ’s birth, church bishops across Europe requested that certain hymns be sung at Christmas services. These first “Christmas carols” were written in Latin and were not very popular. Then in 1233, St. Francis of Assisi started the practice of putting on Nativity plays. The word “Nativity” comes from the Latin word natal, which means “birth.” St. Francis portrayed the events surrounding Jesus’ birth in a cave in Italy, to remind people that Jesus was born for them, just as he was born into a lowly, poor family. St. Francis told the part of each character in the Christmas story using wooden figures. After several years, the plays became so popular that real people began to play the parts of the different characters. Eventually, songs were sung by the actors in a language that audience members could understand, so they began to sing along. Since that time, Christmas carols have been part of bringing the holiday cheer during this season.
I love that when you enter the lobby at Christ’s Church this month, you immediately see a display of a manger filled with straw—the place where Mary placed her newborn King of Kings, wrapped in strips of cloth. In Bible times, every firstborn male lamb was considered holy and was set aside for sacrifice in Jerusalem. The newborn lambs would be wrapped tightly in specially designated strips of cloth and laid in a trough while they were being examined for blemishes. When the shepherds out in the fields were told that the baby would be wrapped in “swaddling clothes,” they knew exactly what that meant!
Christmas Eve and Children
Many families have grown up with the tradition of the children in the family reading from Luke 2 and acting out the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve. They play the parts of Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, and all the animals. It may have been started to keep the children occupied and to curb the persistent questioning, “When do we get to open our presents?” I still vividly remember the Christmas Eve when one of our nephews playing a shepherd whacked his twin brother (also a shepherd) with his staff on the head. Oh, what memories! And, so, the tradition continues today in many homes.
I am so excited to see what will take place at Christ’s Church this Christmas Eve at 2:00 pm at our family service. Under the direction of CCKids director Heather Medlar, we will get to enjoy the angelic voices of forty-two kids, ages four through twelve. Heather has had some incredible volunteers and parents come alongside her helping with crowd control, building sets, learning music and choreography, gathering costumes and props, and preparing for this Friday night. It’s going to be amazing! We invite you to join us for this special service, complete with cookies and a scrumptious hot chocolate bar.
A Little Child Will Lead Them
Theologian Krish Kandiah points out:
“God has a habit of using the small and inconsequential to confound the large and powerful. From the little town of Bethlehem God chose the littlest son of Jesse (see 1 Samuel 16). His own father deemed him so insignificant he didn’t even bother mentioning him to the prophet Samuel. Goliath dismissed him as ‘a boy,’ a mere ‘stick,’ a laughable Israelite champion. But God chose this unlikely lad to be a mighty warrior and a king.”
This lad was King David, the predecessor to the Savior of the world who would be born in the “city of David” hundreds of years later. Of lowly origin, this shepherd-king would usher in God’s kingdom for all people—Jews and Gentiles.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I can’t do much. I’m just a kid!” Nonsense. Remember how Jesus fed a huge multitude of thousands with one boy’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish! God loves using the young, the overlooked, and the unexpected to accomplish his will. He is still using children today to lead their families to the message of the gospel—that his birth is good news to all, the young and the old. Today Jesus reminds us that there is still a child in all of us—especially at Christmas. And he says, “Of such is the kingdom.”
“And calling to him a child, [Jesus] put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
—Matthew 18:2-4, ESV