In 1973, I enjoyed the rare experience of spending Christmas Eve with my family in the ancient city of Bethlehem. While there, I began to wonder why the traditional date of Messiah’s birth was celebrated on December 25th. Was He really born on that specific day? The early church did not celebrate His birth, and it was only in late antiquity that Christians began to do so. The Bible does not specify the date that Messiah was born. Perhaps that was meant to be part of the wonder of the start of His humble life on earth. By tradition, His birth is celebrated on December 25th. The sun god of the later Roman Empire, Sol Invictus, was made into an official cult on December 25th AD 274 by the Emperor, Aurelian. Over the centuries, had the date of that idols celebration been merged, or substituted for the birthdate of the living GOD? - A false god against the true. Saturnalia, the festival of the god Saturn, with its dark rituals and pagan practices, was also celebrated in December. Many modern
Bible scholars, using the dates of historical events and political figures, conclude the season of Messiah’s birth was in the fall, near the time of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) in the Jewish calendar month of Tishri. Tishri falls in our calendar from late September to mid-October. The Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated in October.
What else has been misinterpreted over the centuries? Is the city of Messiah’s birth more important than the date of His birth? Bethlehem was only a small city near Jerusalem, but it was the place appointed for the raising of the sacrificial lambs destined for the temple services. No other sheep or animals were allowed to graze there. The sheep that were meant for sin offerings in the temple had to be male lambs – perfect and without blemish. The shepherds would, of course, attend the birthing of the lambs. This is an obvious symbolic parallel to the Messiah, whom John the Baptist called the, “Lamb of God.” John 1:29. Messiah was without blemish (sin), and would be the sacrifice for mankind on the altar of the cross. In Luke chapter 2, it is recorded that the shepherds, in that same country, after seeing the hosts of angels and knowing of the prophecy, knew where to find the newborn child – in the sheep manger, where the sacrificial lambs were born. The angel told them to look for a baby wrapped in swaddling bands. (Luke 2:12.) The term swaddling bands (cloths) was well-understood by the shepherds. After the sacrificial lambs were born, they would be wrapped in bands of cloth to keep them calm until they could be examined. This swaddling helped the sacrificial lambs to transition from birth. Christian tradition says the place of Messiah’s birth was the holy crypt, where the Church of the Nativity
in manger square now stands. Tradition! It was more likely, His birth occurred at Migdal Eder, referred to as “the tower of the flock,” on the northern edge of Bethlehem where the specially appointed shepherds watched over the sacrificial sheep. Micah 4:8.
The name, Bethlehem, when translated from Hebrew, is another parallel in the story of the nativity. “Beit” is the word for house, and “Lechem” is the Hebrew word for bread. Bethlehem = the house of bread. JESUS referred to himself as “The Bread of Life.” John 6: 32-35.
I have received many Christmas cards showing an artist’s rendering of the night of the nativity. Often included in the drawings were the wise men from the east – the magi. But, according to Matthew 2:11, the magi came into a “house” and saw “the young child,” and presented their gifts to him. This was one to two years later after Messiah’s birth. The Edomite, King Herod, knew of this time frame when he made his decree that male children in Bethlehem, under the age of two, were to be killed. Matthew 2:16. We are not told the names of the wise men, how many there were, nor from which country they travelled. But because there were three gifts recorded, tradition has it that there were three men who gave them.
I think back to that bitterly cold Christmas Eve we spent in Bethlehem. I remember the sense of wonder I felt as I looked at the falling snow. From my seat upstairs, in a building in Bethlehem Square, my children and I watched my husband, Jim, read the nativity story. As he read the story, it was being televised. We were blessed to visit the country of Messiah’s birth. Years later, I still wonder at the miracle of the incarnation - the GOD of timelessness, who created the universe, came to earth over 2,000 years ago as a helpless baby to live among His creation for a specific time. The living GOD of past, present, and future, is our true Savior against which everything false is measured. It may be that we were not meant to have precise details of the greatest story ever told, but that does not detract from the wonder of it, and the unfathomable depth of love which prompted it.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government Shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty GOD, the everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”