A star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…
~ Numbers 24:17 (NRSV)
Christmas is, practically speaking, a birthday celebration.
Did Jesus celebrate his birthday? The truth is that we don’t know. Josephus, a Jewish author of just a few decades after Jesus’ time, said that people in Israel did not observe the date of their birth, but he goes on to explain that they don’t want to encourage an occasion for heavy drinking, implying that maybe people were doing just that. But birthdays seem in the literature to be more of an Egyptian or outlander thing.
In Galilee or even Judea around the greater Jerusalem metropolitan area, you would say what your age was by how many Passovers you’d seen. “Oh, I’ve been around for about sixty-five Passovers, not that I made the trip to Jerusalem every time.”
But the date of your birth was probably not known. Not in the sense that we are used to thinking about it. Maybe the time of year, the season, the month, but our obsession with the “day of” wasn’t the concern of the ancients.
Tradition holds that Luke, in compiling his account of the life of Jesus, traveled around the Mediterranean interviewing eyewitnesses; this is partly supported by the two places where his gospel specifically says of Mary that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Would Mary have known the exact day? A mother today would be certain, but in a time and place without calendars or almanacs or watches, possibly not. It wasn’t that long ago on the Appalachian frontier that people were fairly uncertain about their year of birth, let alone the day.
What is certain is that God’s intentions entered the world in a decisive way through the life of someone we know as Jesus. There is no ambiguity about this; once there was a Jesus, and then there was, and he has been changing lives and impacting the world ever since. So the Western world dates time itself to this certain moment, even if precisely unknown: Before Christ, and then numbering “Anno Domini,” years of Our Lord.
We don’t have to be certain of the day on the calendar to know that the calendar changed, the world changed, and we have been changed because a star rose up, and a royal presence entered the world from heavenly realms.
O Lord most high, you came down low, and entered this world to save us, and to share with us your peace, and your power. Let us celebrate the coming of your Son into the world with joy, and also with a commitment to sharing; to share Jesus with those around us, and to share the love brought into our lives from you with everyone who needs to know that sort of heavenly love in our broken and hurting world. Amen!
Rev Jeff Gill
Central Christian Church, Newark