Starbucks. Target. City halls refusing to put up nativities. This relentless attack on Christmas must stop! Who is going to do battle with our cherished celebration next? The early church fathers? Say what? Listen to a “Justice League” of early fathers ruin Christmas by pointing out that, outside of the holy family, pretty much everything in your nativity crèche is based in fiction rather than biblical reality.
Assumptions v. Reality: The Church Fathers straighten us out on Christmas Night
Let’s contrast our modern version of the Christmas story with the perspective of the early Fathers who stood far closer, both chronologically and culturally, to Jesus’ birth than we do.
- Not Announced by a star
We assume a star over the manger announced the King’s arrival. Like many of our beliefs about the Christmas story, we get that idea from Christmas carols. “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay…” Reality: The star came later (See assumption 3). The heralds were angels, who, as Cyril of Alexandria said in the 5th century, “never oppose the will of the one whose message they bear.” God’s personal messenger service brought the news. For God, when it comes to salvation, it’s personal.
- No Wise Men
Regardless of the school nativity play or the crèche on your mantel, the wise men were not even present at the birth. They arrived a year or so later. (Which explains Herod putting a hit on anyone under two years of age and why the church celebrates the coming of the wise men as Epiphany on Jan 6.) In reality Shepherds were the first non-family to greet Jesus at his birth. In the 200’s Origen wrote, “the host of heaven brought the message of humanities’ good shepherd.” Bonus: There is also no indication from the text that it was the shepherd’s status on the peasant rung of the working-class ladder that amazed the public. What amazed was the message: “peace on earth.” From the divine perspective, “peace on earth” is only possible if there is peace with God – the enmity brought between humanity and God by sin removed. When the ones raising lambs for the temple system were sent to find a baby swaddled the way they swaddled their lambs to keep them spotless for the atonement sacrifices, everyone heard an implication: This baby would be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
- Not an Inn
In the pop culture version Mary and Joseph were rejected, turned away from a packed Inn. In the Greek New Testament, the word for “Inn” is pandocheion, a place travelers paid for a common kitchen and dormitory, like a hostel. But that word isn’t in this text. Joseph and Mary instead went to a kataluma, “the spare or upper room in a private house…no payment was expected.” A kataluma is where the disciples ate the Last Supper, not an “inn,” an “upper room.” Joseph, seems to have done what Middle Easterners do to this day: showed up at a relative’s so that family could extend hospitality. Presumably, coming from a distance with a pregnant wife, other family perhaps already have the guest room for the census. Although “despised and rejected by men” as an adult, Jesus was welcomed on his arrival. In the 3rd century Chrysostem wrote, he was “not in some small room but in the home before numerous people.”
- No Stable
Regardless of what your mom said, you probably weren’t born in a barn and Jesus probably wasn’t either, since animals were not kept in barns in 1st Century Palestine. They were kept in the lower level of the main house. The manger is on the main level so that the animals could put their faces in and eat. Jesus was born in the main room and, as Gregory of Nazianzus said, “bound in swaddling bands at the manger to release humanity from the swaddling bands of the grave at the resurrection.” No wonder his mother named him, Jesus, meaning, “God saves.”
- Not on Christmas.
Jesus’ had a Christmas birthday, right? Wrong. Because the shepherds were in the field, scholars conclude Jesus’ birth was in Spring or Fall. How did we get Dec. 25? A common theory is that we co-opted the Roman feast of the Unconquerable Sun. However, the church, long before it gave a rip about the holidays of Rome’s pantheon of gods, believed Jesus was both conceived and crucified on March 25. They counted forward 9 months from conception, giving us, viola, Dec. 25. In reality, it is the era rather than the day of Jesus’ birth that is important. Jesus was born during the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, allowing the news of him to spread. 7th century historian Bede wrote, “Jesus was born at the time of utmost worldly peace to lead the world back to heavenly peace.”
Conclusion: When Jesus arrived and God “dwelt among us“ he didn’t just, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased, “move into the neighborhood,” he moved into the front room. As Athanasius wrote in the 3rd century, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.” That is the point of Jesus entering what pagan philosopher Celsus called, “the ragtag and bobtail of humanity.”
What do we learn of Christmas from the Fathers? It would be good to learn our Bibles and our story and defend our faith against shallow thinking and ministers who lack the training to teach the scriptures rather than simply critiquing the culture. The truth of Christmas we learn from the scriptures is that angelic messengers let us know that, for God, “it’s personal.” He may have been a helpless baby, but more than a helpless baby, Jesus would be the spotless lamb of God to be sacrificed, shattering the separation of sin. Jesus was at home in the world he had made, in the midst of the stuff of life. His name means “God saves” and his birth is an invitation to that salvation: God joined us “in the fullness of time” to bring peace to the world, that we might be united to him eternally.
Your crèche might be bogus, but the incarnation most certainly is not. Christian, reclaim Christmas by worshipping the manger-born King, walking with God rather than expecting non-believers to, learning our scriptures in the context of historic teaching, and bear witness to the power of that babe to bring “peace on earth, goodwill to those in whom he is well-pleased.”
*And yes, I do know Perpetua isn’t a “Father,” but someone had to be Gal Gadot.
 Commentary on Luke, Homily 2
 Matt 2:16
 John 1:29
 ISBE, 2004
 Luke 22:12
 Isaiah 53:3
 Against the Anomoeans, 7.49
 There are a plethora of references on this one. Google it.
 Oration 29.19
 Homilies on the Gospels, 1.6
 John 1:14
 The Message,
 On the Incarnation
 Contra Celsus,
 John 1:1
 Galatians 4:4
6 thoughts on “Dissing Christmas: The Church Fathers Pile On”
Legit! My website (DailyPS) did something similar to this. We did a quiz containing a lot of what you said here. Thanks for sharing! Regards, Alex (https://DailyPS.com)
Awesome. I’m going to go see if I can pass the test!
Hi Alex, fun test. Having scored badly I want to whine about my score to the instructor: 1. I lost points for listing both Matthew and Luke, 2. Lost points for “born the night of their arrival.” I still insist “while they were there” is indeterminate rather than a definite “no.”, 3. I lost points for Mary on a donkey: again any definite answer assumes facts not in evidence. Finally, I lost points on “manager” under the assumption that you were playing games, rather than spellcheck changing “manger” on you unawares. Fun website!
Thank you for a post I needed to read. I went to a live nativity scene in Atlanta last week. There was a donkey, sheep, rabbits, a Scottish cow that looked like a yak, and a rooster or hen. I was floored by the chance that non-believers would think it was authentic. But, then I just learned a lot from your post.
Wow. Rabbits and Yak-like cows? Maybe we should start referring to it as “the region formerly known as the Bible Belt.”
The star – if it was a “bright” object (as some assume) then all would have seen this heavenly light and wondered at it. So the star described had to be so subtle that not all would see and understand – just like Jesus’ teaching (sometimes he hid his meaning using his stories). This is why it took astronomers (wise men) “from the East” to see the heavens and understand what God was saying.