We are entering what is traditionally known as the Christmas Season and many Christians will be marking the start of Advent on Sunday. Advent comes from a Latin word meaning “coming”, and reflects the expectation which is felt at the coming of Christmas, the historical coming of Jesus, and the historical return of Jesus at the end of the age. For Christians, however, Christmas is something that can be celebrated every day, because it had an impact on life and history that still continues.
When most people think of Christmas, it is Santa Claus, carols, gifts, food and drink, and a few days off work. Society thinks of it as a time to emphasise peace on Earth and the Brotherhood of Man, and so on. But that is really far from the central importance of that first Christmas for the human race and the world in general. That first Christmas initiated a Revolution that changed the world, politically, socially, and culturally, as well as creating an entirely new kind of person. The world, quite simply, was never the same again.
Much of what is generally known about the first Christmas comes from the first book written by the physician and historian, Luke, a Greek, possibly from Antioch, who undertook to write an accurate history of the beginnings of the Christian era. He interviewed those who had known and travelled with Jesus during his life in Judea and Galilee, and he spent years with the early disciples, especially Paul. During Paul’s years in prison in Caesarea, and then in Rome itself, Luke had the opportunity of gathering information, eye-witness reports, and written records, producing his two-volume history known as the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
His writing was addressed to Theophilus, a new Christian, perhaps, but was clearly designed to be read by others too. He introduces his first book with a statement of his methods and intent: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
As a good historian, he provides context for the events he wants to write about, especially the political and social world in which these events took place. Because the first Christmas was not something that happened in isolation from the world around it. It was an integral part of world history, because of which that world would be changed, as Yeats wrote of another event: “changed utterly; a terrible beauty is born”.
One of the most obvious effects of this first Christmas is that we now have a common method of measuring years, a simple method that allows us to date things in relation to each other. When Luke began writing about the ministry of John the Baptist, he had to give six different reference points: who was reigning where, and how long they had been ruling. By cross-referencing these points, it was possible to know when John had first appeared on the scene. Today, we count the years from the time of that first Christmas: AD, Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord. Before that event is BC, Before Christ. In a secular world, where reference to Jesus is not deemed acceptable, the terms have changed for many to “BCE” and “CE”, Before the Common Era and Common Era. However, such is the impact of that first Christmas, even the Common Era dates from the birth of Jesus. That was a revolutionary event in the history of the world. Of course, when the AD and BC system was first introduced in AD 525, it was not terribly accurate, and it is now understood that Jesus was born in 4 BC. I find that rather funny.
But, in addition to giving a chronological measuring method, the first Christmas was revolutionary in so many other ways. It was a shock to the religious ideas of the time, a complete reversal of expectations and assumptions of those who were most eager to see it happen, and it brought about a revolution in society, in the role of women, and in society’s attitude to status, wealth, power and life itself, which has shaped society ever since, even where Christianity is most rejected and denied.
Because, once again on our day, the revolution begun at Christmas in 4 BC continues to contradict the attitudes and assumptions of many of those who are most closely associated with Jesus and the meaning of his birth. The revolution which started in 4 BC continues to have its effects and to be opposed by those who claim to believe in it.
Next time: A Revolution in expectations: women and the poor.