On a December night 2,019 years ago, shepherds and three wise men gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus, born in a stable because there was no room in the inn.
Except, that’s not exactly what happened.
It likely wasn’t December. It was near 0 A.D., but probably some other year. We don’t know how many magi were there or when. And the word “inn” could more accurately translate to “guestroom.”
Now, I don’t share all that just to burst your merry and bright Christmas bubble — and certainly not to poke holes in your faith. Christmas is still a special time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, one who many — myself included — consider savior and Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God with us.”
So, hang with me as we explore this story and how our own cultural lenses affect our understanding of the world around us.
Two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, recount the birth of a baby who would be called Jesus. Those books were written some number of years following the death of Jesus and later compiled into the portion of the Bible that Christians call the New Testament.
Luke recounts that shepherds were in the fields. Many scholars point out that the shepherds wouldn’t be in the fields in December. It’s more likely Jesus was born in the spring.
The Dec. 25 date was likely popularized because it coincided with already popular pagan religious celebrations.
Most scholars put Jesus’ birth at 4 B.C. or earlier. King Herod died in 4 B.C. He’s a rather prominent figure in the story, making it unlikely Jesus was born after Herod’s death. Then again, the census Joseph and Mary were traveling to participate in seems to have been taken in 6 A.D.
Whenever he was born, some tradition suggest the magi came Jan. 6. Others believe the magi came two years later.
In any case, the writer of Matthew doesn’t number the magi.
“But there are three wise men in my Nativity set!,” you might say. And the song says “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
If no one has pointed this fact out to you before, don’t just trust me on it. Go look carefully. It’s in Matthew 2: “magi came from the east to Jerusalem.”
Matthew lists three gifts brought by the magi: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
And did you know the word “inn” could be just as easily translated as “guest room?”
“She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom,” states Luke 2:7 in the Common English Bible translation.
I can’t find any account in the Gospels of the couple going door to door, being turned away by an innkeeper until finally someone has some mercy and offers a barn.
It’s possible the story played out that way. It’s also possible they stayed with family, the house was full and they wanted some privacy in a stable.
I point all this out because culture and tradition color our view of the world, whether we’re aware of it or not.
This story in particular is steeped in tradition, making it a prime example.
We approach it with a layer of assumptions built up by Christmas carols, holiday movies, even Christmas decorations.
And with that cultural lens, it’s easy to miss what’s actually in the text.
Truth is, we bring those cultural lenses to more than just this story. We navigate life with these lenses — where we’re born, at what socioeconomic level, what we look like, how we’re raised. It all affects how we approach the world and what we believe about it.
It seems we easily divide along those lines and become blind to the lens “we” are peering through to see “them” on the other side.
We make assumptions about other people’s stories — why they support that candidate or proposal, how they could believe this about the latest news or issue. When, truth is, we’re so steeped in our own traditions and background there’s no way we can comprehend any of it without a little humility, a little research and a lot of listening.
The cultural lenses of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi are vastly different from our own. They didn’t gather in the stable and sing “Away in a manger” with a Christmas tree in one corner. But perhaps Jesus’ story can shatter assumptions, transcend those times and cultures, and give us all a little humility this Christmas.