Christmas People

December 20th, 2011

Setting the Scene

On Sunday, people all over the world will be telling the story of Christmas, remembering the reason for the season and celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The story tells of places and people familiar to all Christians. I will set the context for discussing the people in the Christmas stories by looking at the places described in the story.

Our family tradition is to light the Christ candle in our Advent wreath on this day. It is a sculpted table decoration of four sections featuring a typical crèche scene. Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus in the manger are together on one section with one purple candle. The magi with their rich robes and gifts occupy another side. The shepherds and sheep kneel on another section, and an angel and animals look on from the last side. I enjoy studying their faces and wondering what they must have been thinking. The artist had to make decisions about what expressions to put on their faces. Would I have portrayed them differently?

This season, our church has been using an Advent study by Adam Hamilton called The Journey. In this series, he studies Mary, Joseph, and some of the other people involved in the birth narrative, weaving them together with archeological and historical material from the places where the story is set. When I took my own journey to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt in 2007, many of the biblical events I had read about all my life took on new meaning. Because touring the holy sites often gives us new insights into the Bible story, many have called the land of the Bible the Fifth Gospel.

For example, Nazareth is a large town today; but in Jesus’ day it could scarcely have held more than 200 people, some of whom lived in caves hewn out of the soft limestone rock. The name Nazareth probably came from the Hebrew word netzer, meaning stem or root. The founders of Jesus’ hometown may have been families returning from the Babylonian exile who saw their own repatriation to the land as partial fulfillment of Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; / a branch [netzer] will sprout from his roots.” Their return was a sign of new life for Israel 500 years before Jesus was born. With his birth, their hopes would take on new meaning, though his own hometown would eventually reject him (Luke 4:16-30).

Bethlehem is not far from Jerusalem. The Church of the Nativity is built on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. It is in a cave called the Grotto of the Nativity. Mary and Joseph’s night with the animals was likely spent in such a place. The door to the church is only a few feet tall, requiring people to stoop or kneel to enter in humility and reverence.


All of the Gospels mention Mary, the mother of Jesus; but only Matthew and Luke tell the story of her miraculous pregnancy, and only in Luke do we hear her voice prominently. Luke also names the angel who speaks to her, Gabriel, and shows how he appears first to Zechariah (1:11-20), then to Mary (1:26-38). The contrast between Mary and Zechariah could not be more striking. When Gabriel tells Zechariah, an elderly priest, that his wife will have a baby, he doubts Gabriel’s words and asks for a sign. Gabriel’s sign is that Zechariah will not be able to speak until his son John is born nine months later! By contrast,when Gabriel tells Mary that she will likewise have a miraculous pregnancy, she expresses bewilderment, but she answers, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Later, she visits her cousin Elizabeth. Again, in contrast to Zechariah’s silence, Mary delivers one of the finest songs in the Bible, the Magnificat, named so because she begins with “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46, NRSV). While we can only speculate on the mix of fear, hope, honor, and confusion that Mary may have experienced upon hearing Gabriel’s words, this song reflects a faith grounded in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. She sings of God’s action in history: “He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones / and lifted up the lowly. / He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed” (1:52-53). Perhaps because she had been raised in Nazareth, which looked back to its history in captivity and forward to the promises of God, she was less timid about receiving God’s favor than Zechariah and understood the world-changing implications of it.

When Zechariah finally speaks, he echoes Mary’s words (his speech is in Luke 1:68-79). In the first chapter of Luke, Mary begins a pattern that shapes Luke’s Gospel in which women play a prominent role. Perhaps it was Mary’s own divinely appointed influence on her Son that made him inclined to include women among his disciples (8:2-3).


While Luke’s Gospel features Mary in a lead role, Matthew focuses on Joseph. We do not hear as much from Joseph, but his actions show that he was a man of strong faith who was willing to be open to the guidance of God. After one incident when Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2:41-51), Joseph drops out of the story altogether. This has led many people to speculate that he died, and that he was much older than Mary. The evidence within the text, though, is only circumstantial. There is no reason Joseph could not have been young and outspoken. Matthew’s Gospel tends to be sparse on dialogue from people other than Jesus; and it may be simply Matthew’s lean narrative style that makes Joseph seem the strong, silent type.

Again, we can only speculate on his emotions and thoughts when he found out his betrothed wife was pregnant. Adam Hamilton suggests that it was probably the worst day of his life. Even so, rather than react in anger, he chooses to “call off their engagement quietly” (Matthew 1:19) instead of subjecting her to humiliation. The author shows that Joseph cares for Mary in spite of her presumed unfaithfulness.

He also shows that Joseph is open to guidance from God. Angels appear to him three times in dreams. The first time, the angel tells him that the child Mary is carrying is from the Holy Spirit (1:20). Rather than leave her, he goes through with the marriage. In the second dream, the angel warns him of King Herod’s murderous intentions toward his infant Son (2:13). The final time, the angel instructs Joseph to return from Egypt with his family (2:19-20). Like his namesake, the other Joseph who lived some 1,500 years earlier, he seems to have been a dreamer (Genesis 37:5-11) and an interpreter of dreams (Genesis 40:8). It is likely Matthew wants us to think about Joseph, the father of Jesus, the same way we think of Joseph, the son of Jacob, who also made a journey to Egypt, and by whose actions God saved the Hebrew people. Joseph’s role in listening to God and protecting his family is critical to ensure that Jesus can become the Savior of the world.

Magi, Shepherds, and Other Characters

Although he is often a fixture of children’s plays, there is no innkeeper in the biblical Christmas story. An innkeeper does make an appearance in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:35), but the word in the Christmas story that we have traditionally called “inn” is actually “guest chamber.” Adam Hamilton describes one interpretive option when he says that perhaps Joseph’s own extended family had crowded their home place in Bethlehem, and the stable was the only option. It would have had the added advantage of relative privacy for Mary, separating the ritually unclean birthing room from the other guests in the household.

Though the Advent wreath on our table features animals, magi, and shepherds together with the Holy Family, the whole cast of characters are separate in the Bible. The magi, or wise men from the East, make their appearance in Matthew and do not necessarily show up on the same day as the shepherds (Matthew 2:1). Since Matthew seems more interested in Galilee and regions east of Jerusalem (26:32;28:10), he may be especially curious about these astrologers from the East. Perhaps because Luke is particularly interested in economic justice and issues that separate the rich from the poor (as Mary’s Magnificat attests), he focuses on the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20).

Christmas People

The artist who designed our Advent wreath and put the whole cast of characters together was making a theological statement, as does every children’s production that features Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and magi together with the angels and animals (and nonexistent innkeeper). While it may not be biblically accurate, it indicates that the salvation present in the baby Jesus is intended for all creation: men, women, children, foreigners, natives, rich, and poor; it also indicates that Jesus is Lord of all: angels, human beings, even the sheep and cows in the stall.

All the biblical people in these narratives, the Christmas people, offer opportunities for us to think about who we are as Christmas people. By reflecting on their responses to God’s salvation and presence through the birth of Jesus, we can explore for ourselves who God is and how we can respond. God’s grace is wide and inclusive, and we are all invited to come and kneel at the manger.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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