There is no biblical reason to celebrate Christmas—at least there is no biblical mandate. We are commanded to remember Christ’s death until He returns, and the means of doing so is prescribed: the bread and the cup, partaken of as a body of believers, unencumbered by the secular and often bizarre trappings of what has become Christmas. Never are we told to commemorate Christ’s birth.
Yet, as I sit listening to Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, I think of how much I enjoy many aspects of Advent: the more careful attention to the biblical narrative of the incarnation; the wonderful choral music, much of it dating back many centuries; the smell of baking in the house; the pleasure of buying or making gifts for people I love; the delicious food and pleasant conversation shared with friends (no family this year.)
When Jesus was born there were no carols, no shortbread or fruitcake, no ribbons or shiny paper or turkey or gift cards or balsam or gingerbread-scented candles. The first Christmas, in fact, had a sinister side.
Christ’s birth occurred under a dark cloud of scandal.
Immediately, Mary—a godly, pensive, devout Jewish teenager (we know that from her prayer in Luke 1.48-55)—was thrust into the place where her reputation, never before questioned, was obviously compromised. Her pregnancy could only be hidden for so long, after all.
Mary was well acquainted with the Mosaic law: though fornication means nothing in our decadent society, it was unthinkable in her day. I remember when the word, “illegitimate” was stricken from the law books here in Canada, as it was perceived to be irrelevant and injurious to the reputation and prospects of the child to which it was ascribed. Not so in the Old Testament.
How was she going to explain this to her family, to her friends, and especially to Joseph? (Only when we read Matthew do we learn that Joseph was visited in the night by an angel, presumably the same angel who announced Christ’s birth to Mary, and instructed to take her as his wife because her virginity was intact and her child was the Son of God.)
At the village well there was sure to be gossip, and it would be juicy. Even in the best case scenario, her Son might always live with the stigma of his dubious conception, and she with that of being an impure woman. What was she to do?
On the other hand, perhaps Mary’s character served to confirm the immaculate conception of Jesus. Unlike three other women in His lineage—Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba, their dirty laundry all hanging conspicuously from the branches of His family tree—Mary was known to be a pure and god-fearing girl and surely, surely had not done what it appeared she had!