Was Jesus Born in a Barn, Cave, or House?

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The question “Where was Jesus born?” is surprisingly tricky. The easy answer is, “In Bethlehem.” Yes, but where? The typical nativity scene features the holy family in a stable that looks like a barn, separate from the Inn, where there was no room. But is this accurate? Most historians and scholars say, “Not so much.”

This is a question that I’ve seen pop up more frequently on social media this year than in previous years, so I figured I’d take some time to lay out the facts and present some of the more popular theories.

What We Know
We know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was no room “in the inn,” and that he was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Luke 2:4-7 (ESV)

Aside from these basics, there’s a lot of detail left open: Why were they turned away from “the inn?” Why was there a manger, does that mean they were in the barn with the animals? Where did people in ancient Bethlehem keep the animals? These types of questions have led to a few different theories about where Jesus was actually born, which are briefly summarized below. Continue reading

Recovering our Fear

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Advent is a season of waiting… remembering Israel’s wait for Christ to come, and the Church’s wait for his return in glory. As we wait, it is so easy to lose focus and get busied with routine joys and routine troubles while forgetting about Christ at all. This isn’t a new struggle.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor in the days leading up to World War II and was persecuted (and eventually killed at Hitler’s direct command) for his role in opposing the Nazi regime. The following quote comes from Bonhoeffer’s sermon on the first Sunday of Advent in 1935 as Hitler’s power in Germany was increasing. Keep Bonhoeffer’s context in mind as you read this excerpt from this Advent sermon based out of Revelation 14:6-13.

And the speech of the angel is so simple that anyone could understand it: “fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment is come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the springs of water.” That is the first command of the gospel. “Fear God” and you will have nothing else to fear.

Don’t fear what the next day may bring. Don’t fear other people. Don’t fear violence and power, even when it comes to you personally and can rob you of your life. Don’t fear the high and mighty in the world. Don’t fear yourself. Don’t fear your sins. All these fears will die. From all these fears you will be set free. For they are no longer there. But fear God and him alone. For he has the power over all the powers of this world. The whole world is in fear of God. He has power to give us life or to destroy us. All other powers are a mere game.

God alone is real, seriously real. Fear God seriously and “give him the glory.” He would be acknowledged as the creator, as our creator; he would be acknowledged as the reconciler, who has made peace between God and man; he would be acknowledged as redeemer, who at the end sets us free from all our sins and all our burdens. Honor him and his holy gospel, “because the hour of his judgment is come.” And this judgment is the gospel itself. The eternal gospel is the judge of all peoples.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Remembrance Sunday: Who and What is Babylon?” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 111.

Bonhoeffer emphasizes throughout the remainder of the sermon that the gospel is the only message of salvation. Even while he states, “The eternal gospel is the judge of all peoples,” it is important to hear the rest of his message about the gospel – it is not a message of damnation, but of reconciliation with God and freedom from all fears. It is only through the gospel that men and women can live with the right kind of fear: fear of God.

However you approach the Christmas season, and much is often made about how difficult this season is for many, let this be a time to reset your fear. Do not fear death. Do not fear judgment. Do not fear all sorts of other fearful things…. fear God. For in the end, when everything else has been subject to judgment, He remains. He is victorious. This is Good News indeed.

Why Did God Need to Become Human? (aka: Why Christmas?)

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A young grade-schooler came home recently with a packet of “Holidays Around the World.” In it, religious holidays were described only according to the ways they’re celebrated. Hanukkah was described as eight days when people light candles. Christmas is a day when Santa Claus comes to deliver presents to children and people decorate with Christmas trees and lights on their houses.

Describing Christmas by pointing to Christmas trees and Santa Claus is like describing Independence Day by talking about fireworks and Uncle Sam.

The gospel is at the heart of Christmas: the gift of salvation through the life and work of Jesus Christ. But why did Jesus need to be fully man and fully God? As St. Anselm asked, “Why the God-Man?Continue reading

God Chose a Poor Family

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One of the details about Christ’s birth that can be overlooked is the poverty of Mary and Joseph. When we consider that the infinite, holy, Triune God who created the heavens and earth became a baby boy, we would expect him to choose an appropriate home. How many parents, when presented with the option to choose what type of home in which choose poverty?

But this is exactly what God did. He was not born in a mansion. He did not entrust Jesus to a powerful or influential family. God didn’t even choose the equivalent of a middle-class family. Instead, he choose a young woman who was engaged to a poor but godly man… knowing that their family would be shrouded in rumors and suspicion because of the apparent-infidelity that surrounded Jesus’ birth.

Luke 2:22-24 tells of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the Temple. Each family, upon the birth of their firstborn child, would present an offering to the Lord (see Leviticus 12:6-8). The offering would be a lamb and either a dove or pigeon. This was an offering most middle-class families would be able to afford. It wasn’t extravagant, but required enough sacrifice that it was a meaningful offering to the Lord. But if the family was poor and could not afford such an offering, they could present two doves or pigeons.

Do you think you have little to offer God?

Remember Mary and Joseph. Of all the people God could have chosen, he chose them. Their godliness was of greater value than any offering they could have presented in the temple. Do not allow your lack of resources or prominence to keep you from believing God is able to use you.

They simply obeyed God. When the angel declared to them that the child would be the Messiah, they obeyed. When the Torah told them to offer a sacrifice in the temple for their firstborn, they obeyed. When the angel told them to escape to Egypt, they obeyed. In the midst of their simple obedience… God was at work in miraculous ways.

Doesn’t that just sound like the way of the gospel? God choosing those who have nothing to offer except faith-filled obedience, trusting in the power of God to provide.

What is Advent? (not only for Catholics)

God isn’t honored by Christians becoming “scrooges” who criticize everything about the Christmas season in an effort to “purify” Christmas. At the same time, don’t allow yourself to lose Jesus under the Christmas tree. Unfortunately, I know quite a few Christians who fall into both of those extremes. Recovering the Advent Season is our best way to be joyfully focused on God during this Christmas season.

Advent is more than a calendar with cheap chocolate leading up to December 25th. It is a season of “expectant waiting.” Does that describe your attitude today, or are you so bogged down by busyness and shopping that you don’t have time to expect anything but stress? The article below summarizes the message and meaning of Advent for the everyday Christian.

This season, create space to slow down. Watch less TV. Delete social media apps from your phone. Wake up earlier. Do what you need to do to spend time in Scripture each day, meditating on God’s work of salvation and his glorious promises to his children.

Advent Candle Continue reading

Why Did Jesus Come? For These Two Reasons…

Who knew that sweet baby boy in the manger would be the most controversial human in history? More ink has been spilled about him than anyone else who has ever lived.

It’s so easy for us to lose sight of the divisiveness of Jesus. He’s one person with whom you can’t sit on the fence: you either believe he is the Son of God and the savior of the world, or you don’t. He is either who the Bible says he is, or he’s just another misunderstood teacher who got himself in trouble by criticizing people of power.

In the midst of all the wrapping paper and Christmas presents, we can easily forget the controversial nature of Jesus’ mission. He was not born simply to provide a nice example for people to follow.

The following are the specific verses where Jesus explicitly says why he came (as well as a few other relevant verses from the New Testament). May these remind you why Christmas is worth celebrating.

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Sr Columba Guare © 2005 Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey

Continue reading

Why Christmas is on December 25th?

Christmas is coming soon, but why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th? The Bible makes absolutely no reference to any date, and gives barely any information that could even hint at which season Jesus was born. So how did the Church land on December 25th as our celebration of Christ’s birth? The early evidence shows that it wasn’t until the late 2nd Century until people even started trying to figure out what date Jesus was born. Some Early Church leaders actually argued against trying to determine a date for Jesus’ birthday. Instead, the emphasis was on Jesus’ death and on the specific days and events leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection (since those details are given in Scripture).  Since there is so little information about Jesus’ birth, the Early Church was always content to simply emphasize the virgin birth without knowing when exactly Jesus was born.
Interestingly, the “12 Days of Christmas” comes from a disagreement regarding when Christmas should be celebrated.

christmas-star“The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.
Andrew McGowan

By the 300’s there were Christian groups regularly celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25th. Before then, the Christians either didn’t care to know Jesus’ birthday or they were still trying to come to agreement.

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Two Reasons My Family Won’t Buy an Elf on the Shelf

My son is the only person in his school who doesn’t have an “Elf on the Shelf.” Well, not really. But if you heard him talk, that’s what you’d believe. By now he’s accepted that it’s just not going to happen in our home, but for the first years of elementary school he felt like everyone else had one.

Wikipedia describes the Elf on the Shelf book and accompanying figurine like this,

The story describes how Santa’s “scout Elves” hide in people’s homes to watch over events. Once everyone goes to bed, the scout elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa the activities, good and bad, that have taken place throughout the day. Before the family wakes up each morning, the scout elf flies back from the North Pole and hides. By hiding in a new spot each morning around the house, the scout elf and the family play an on-going game of hide and seek.

The book tells how the magic might disappear if the scout elf is touched, so the rule for The Elf on the Shelf states, “There’s only one rule that you have to follow, so I will come back and be here tomorrow: Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.” Although families are told not to touch their scout elf, they can speak to it and tell it all their Christmas wishes so that it can report back to Santa accurately.

The story ends on Christmas Day with the elf leaving to stay with Santa for the rest of the year until the following Christmas season.

This has become an incredibly popular addition to the Christmas season. Hiding the elf can be fun for parents and fun for kids. It can also be another way for parents to leverage the “magic” of Christmas into having well-behaved children for the month of December.

Is the elf evil? no. Will I stop being friends with you if you have an elf? Maybe. Ok, no I won’t. But I don’t recommend it, especially for those who are Christians and celebrate Advent as the season of anticipation of Christ’s return as we remember his birth.

There are two main reasons my family has not and will not purchase (or accept one if given as a gift) an Elf on the Shelf.

elf-on-the-shelf Continue reading