When was Jesus born? What day? What year? We don’t have certain answers for these questions. The day used in Western tradition, December 25, was likely chosen for cultural or theological reasons (see this link for full discussion). The greater concern for the early church was the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, a practice that was not confined to a yearly Easter, but recognized weekly by gathering on the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2).
The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, whether weekly or yearly, is certainly important. His birth means little apart from his death and resurrection. But cultural tradition enjoys the celebration of birthdays rather than deathdays (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday is the Monday nearest his birthday in January, not in April when he was assassinated).
Celebration of Jesus’ birth brings out many beloved things for us: babies, gifts, music, and family to name a few. But at its heart, Christmas is a theological holiday. It looks at one of the greatest mysteries in human history: how could God become human? Was Jesus God or Man? Or both? In our moments of deepest theological honesty, we look at this mystery of the incarnation and must say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand it fully, but I am sure glad that it happened.”
God is great, and I’m sure he could have come up with another plan for human redemption from sin other than taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. But this is what God chose to do. So, while Christmas is meaningless without Easter, Easter is impossible without Christmas.
This profound truth is conveyed in the simple and timeless words of the prophet Isaiah:
The virgin will conceive
and give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel.
Yes, I am aware of questions about whether this was intended by Isaiah as a prophecy for King Ahaz in the 8th century BC. I realize that the Hebrew word translated “virgin” is somewhat ambiguous and may mean no more than “young unmarried woman.”
But this is not the way the early church understood Isaiah. Matthew, who quotes this verse in 1:23, uses the Greek translation of the OT and its word, parthenos, which unequivocally means “virgin.” As in, never had sexual intercourse. As in, there was no male contribution to the conception of this child. As in, this could only be a miracle, designed and accomplished by God himself. While Matthew does not give us the exact date or year for the first Christmas, he frames our celebration in a powerful way by these three words (two in Greek):
virgin will conceive
As with many things in the Christian faith, I don’t understand this. I can understand the result, but if I am wearing my Mr. Scientist hat, I am lost. Virgin women don’t make babies all by themselves. Only God and do this. Let us not over-analyze, as is our wont in theology. Let us celebrate and be thankful.
Nebraska Christian College