For us in Western countries, the Christmas story has long had a compelling resonance, whether we’re Christians or not. I know several atheists, Jews, and non-Christian Asians who celebrate some form of the Christmas holidays with a decorated tree and gift giving. They take children to Christmas pageants, and they voluntarily listen to music that proclaims the divinity of Jesus and celebrates his birth in a hovel in an ancient, impoverished land.
What is the appeal of that simple tale? How and why has the image of Jesus in a stable endured as a central icon of world-wide Christian mythology for nearly two millennia?
Indeed, the birth of Jesus was not a part of the gospel of Mark, which scholars agree was the first written gospel. Rather, Mark’s gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. However, Matthew’s gospel, although written later, was placed before Mark in the canon, presumably to offer a story of Jesus’ birth that could appeal to the common people of the Roman Empire. Ordinary subjects of the empire were, at that time, oppressed physically, often as slaves, and financially, through taxes, tithes and bribes to Roman officials as well as to local upper-class tyrants.
Let’s look more deeply at what that image of a baby in a manger implies.
First of all, the image of a central religious figure as a helpless infant calls forth the impulse to love and protect. This story of holiness in the smallest, most innocent child, gives worshipers permission to love—rather than fear—that which is Holy.
Moreover, the poverty, the homelessness, the helplessness of the baby and family imply that the Holy can spring from the most deprived conditions. Those who heard this story could identify with the protagonists, wandering homeless, impoverished by taxes, forced to make do with what little generosity might be forthcoming from strangers. Moreover, the fact that the mother was unwed added a stigma that placed her near the bottom of the social hierarchy. That God would bless such parents with a holy child might offer hope to others struggling in poverty and despair.
Finally, the gathering of others around the newborn Jesus—in Matthew, Wise Men; in Luke, shepherds and angels—to bless this ordinary event gives it improbable significance, which offers comfort to those who must bear up under similar circumstances.
This image of the beginning of the life of Jesus was an image of hope. The imagery at the end of his life was very different (more on that later).
It was probably this sense of Hope that sustained early Christians through three centuries of deprivation and persecution as the Roman Empire passed through its brutal unraveling. A religion that honors and appeals to common people more than to the élite has a far better chance of surviving over the long run, if for no reason other than the numbers involved, for “The poor you will always have with you.”