Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas in September?

As we find ourselves approaching Christmas, I thought I would share with you a question I have been asked many times, especially at this time of year, and that is, "was Jesus really born on December 25"? Well, to answer that we need only to look closely at the story of His birth told to us in the gospel of Luke and carefully consider what is said there.

First we should look at the description given as to what the shepherds were doing when Jesus was born. In Luke 2:8 we find that the shepherds were in the fields tending their flock at night. Not an uncommon occurrence when in season, but certainly not around December 25 when it's winter in Israel and the lows at night are in the 30-40 degree range. Shepherds in Israel would usually stop taking their flocks out in mid-October and not resume until the spring, so that could be our first clue that a December date is inaccurate.

The second thing we can look at is related to the winter as well. In Luke 2:1-3 we see that a decree was given by Caesar that the whole world should be taxed. As a result, everyone was to return to their "own city" for the purpose of registering their payment. How logical would it be for Rome to ask everyone they wanted to tax to travel, (understanding the main mode of transportation was walking), in the winter when not only was it cold, but snow was possible at any time? Somehow it just doesn't seem likely this would happen. After all, remember Rome was after money, so why make it hard to collect?

The best indication, however, of just when Jesus was born can be found in the first chapter of Luke when we are told of the conception and birth of Jesus' cousin John the Baptist. When we are introduced to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, we are told in verse 5 of chapter 1 that he was a priest "of the course of Abia", or Abijah. It says also that he was beginning his service in the temple when he was told by the angel Gabriel that he was about to become a father. We know from
1 Chronicles 24:10 that the course of Abijah was the eighth course to serve in the temple. This would mean his service would have ended around the month of July. Assuming a normal term of pregnancy, John would have likely been born around April of the next year.

Why is this important to our question of when Jesus was born? If we look at Luke 1:36 we see that when Gabriel visited Mary to tell her about what was about to happen to her, he also said that Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and Marys' cousin, was in her 6th month of pregnancy. This means that Jesus was to be born approximately 6 months after John the Baptist. Look at John being born around April, and you end up with Jesus being born around September. Is it possible that Jesus was actually born in September rather than in December as we celebrate it?

I think if we accept what the Bible tells us as being accurate, it would be hard for us not to. But if we assume this to be correct, I want to throw out one more thing to consider. By now most should realize the importance of events in Israels' history occuring on their Holy Feast days. If you have heard me teach at all I know you are familiar with this subject. After the Israelites were delivered out of the bondage in Egypt, while in the desert, God told Moses that there were to be seven feasts celebrated throughout the year. Three occur in the spring, one in the summer, and three more in the fall. If we assume a normal 280 day pregnancy, and then place Johns' birth in April and Jesus' birth in September we find it is not only possible, but probable that John was born on the Feast of Passover, and Jesus was born on the Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot. I'm sure this is just coincidence right? You might want to also think about this. Why was Bethlehem so crowded that Joseph and Mary could not find any room? How about the fact it was The Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three feast days that all Jewish men were required to attend in Jerusalem, and everyone who could possibly make the trip was there to celebrate?

Am I trying to ruin your Christmas here? Of course not. I think Jesus appreciates His children celebrating His birth even if we got the day wrong. However I do think the very best gift we can give Him is to not only remember the reason for the season, but to celebrate it exactly as He would want. Let's all be sure to remember God's gift to us in the person of Jesus, and to give to others before we think of ourselves and what we might want.

God gave us the ultimate gift. What are we giving, and to whom?