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Cutting through the Christmas birth stories to what's vital


Twice in my life I have been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional site of the birth of Jesus.

Once I was there on Christmas Eve in 1957 and once in 2012.

The photo here, which I took in 2012, shows the specially marked spot (now in the grotto of the church) said to be exactly  where Mary gave birth to the Christ child. And you are welcome to believe that if you wish, just as you are free to believe that the birth really took place in Bethlehem.

Although no reputable scholar today claims that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth, there have long been disputes over whether to take the birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke literally, including the location of the nativity.

The French scholar Ernest Renan, for instance, in his 1863 book The Life of Jesus, writes this: "Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee, which before his time had no celebrity. All his life he was designated by the name of 'the Nazarene,' and it is only by a rather embarrassed and round-about way, that, in the legends respecting him, he is made to be born at Bethlehem. . .The precise date of his birth is unknown."

As for the date, Alfred Eidersheim, in his still-read 1883 volume, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, argues not only that Bethlehem is the right location for the birth but also he uses a long footnote to argue that the traditional Dec. 25 date is exactly right: "There is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds, which seem to me historically untenable."

So what?

Good question.

Those of us who are Christian did not become disciples of Jesus because of where or exactly when he was born. For me and many others, the primary reason to be a Christ follower has to do with his self-emptying love that we are urged to emulate so that we recognize the image of God in every other human being alive and treat them as precious children of God.

The annual celebration of Christmas -- about to happen -- is (or should) simply be an opportunity to remind ourselves of that high calling and to do a self-inventory to see how we're measuring up to the impossibly high standards Jesus set. Then Christmas also should remind us that our works do not save us. Rather, what Christians call salvation is the freely given grace of God.

I'm done complaining about the commercialization of Christmas and I'm done listening to fools who say that there is a war on Christmas (to say nothing of one on Christianity) in the U.S. All of that energy distracts from the necessary focus on how to live a life of love and commitment to the teachings of Jesus.

I've just finished Jon Meacham's new biography of the late Rep. John Lewis: His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.

If you are looking for models to teach you about how to be a disciple of Christ in a religiously pluralistic nation, you can't do much better than Lewis, whose leadership in the Civil Rights Movement was crucial to the many successes the movement had. And Lewis based his entire life on living out the values Jesus taught.

Meacham writes this: "John Lewis's life is a reminder that progress, however limited, is possible, and that religiously inspired witness and action can help bring about such progress." Then Meacham quotes Lewis near the end of his life (he died July 17, 2020), thinking about the pioneering civil rights work he did and his work in Congress to liberate people: "We truly believed that we were on God's side, and in spite of everything -- God's truth would prevail."

In a world full of war and disease, heartache and inequity, anger and revenge, it's that commitment to believing that God's truth will prevail that should inspire followers of Jesus as they approach the manger again this year. For if it prevails, no one will be an enemy.

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Sticking with our Bethlehem theme here today, the little town is suffering badly this year, this RNS story says. "Traditionally a festive time, if a busy one professionally, Christmas is usually an opportunity for the Holy Land’s tiny Christian minority, which comprises less than 2% of the Israeli and Palestinian populations (and dwindling), to come together and shine as a community. Annual Christmas concerts, plays, markets and prayer services have been either canceled or scaled back dramatically. Making matters worse, due to COVID-19 restrictions, family members who have emigrated are barred from returning to the Holy Land for the holidays, leaving those who remain feeling all the more isolated." The hymn, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," says, "How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. . ." Apparently that's especially true this year." Sigh.


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