Category Archives: Christmas and Easter
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most attested and contested narrative in history. The eyewitness testimony, archaeological evidence, historical analysis and mountain of evidence alone are convincing. Many a skeptic has set out to prove the narrative false and instead became a believer.
After all, IF Jesus did resurrect then it proves His claims of Divinity. And if Jesus was truly God then every other religion, ideology and philosophy fails. It’s no wonder Christ (and Christianity) is viciously attacked, lampooned and persecuted. It’s no wonder evidence that proves Christianity true is routinely ignored, revised or shrouded.
And no archaeological evidence has faced more scrutiny and shrouding than a piece of cloth known as the Shroud of Turin.
I’ll be honest, for years I never gave this evidence much attention. I’m not sure why, except that I never have been forced to fully evaluate it’s narrative and analyze the proofs for it’s veracity.
And yet, if this shroud is real it unequivocally proves not just the existence of Jesus, but supports his crucifixion and the power of resurrection. It’s entirely reasonable that of all the relics the disciples would’ve kept, treasured and memorialized it would be the burial cloth that wrapped their resurrected Messiah. Surely a cloth that held the Messiah wouldn’t be abandoned (since the rest of Jesus’ earthly belongings were gambled away and in others’ hands). We could also expect a disciple, like Peter and John, to retain the burial shroud as evidence Jesus was no longer in the tomb (John 20:3-10)–especially if that evidence showed markings of Resurrection. It’s also reasonable, in the days, months, years and centuries that followed the resurrection of Jesus that this memorabilia would be properly preserved and occasionally displayed.
The fact it exists does not surprise me. What’s shocking is the skeptic’s response.
They only answer they’ve got is the Shroud of Turin is fake. Somehow a medieval prankster, in their view, created a cloth bearing the crucified likeness of Jesus Christ and featured all the finer details of scourging and crucifixion. It’s a plausible option until you realize that no one TODAY can replicate this burial shroud, including its detractors! If it was so easy to do a thousand years ago why can’t we do it today? But the shroud is not art (there is no paint or other applied substance on it). The image is burned into the cloth and yet no one can explain how it was done.
What do we know for sure about the Shroud of Turin?
First, we know it depicts graphically a crucified person. It’s a cloth that shows a complete body–a scourged and crucified body (including bloody marks in the ankles and wrists, in the chest, on the back and head).
Second, it’s the only known archaeological example of a burial cloth. Ancient ossuaries or bone boxes are a dime a dozen, but how many preserved burial cloths do we possess? It’s also fascinating because few crucified people were wrapped in shrouds (and given proper burials). The crucified were the lowest of the low in ancient culture. And why would anyone retain a bloody burial cloth of a crucified person anyway? The crucified were cremated. In fact the ONLY evidence we possess for an ancient Roman crucifixion is one nail and ankle bone fragment.
It’s why the Shroud of Turin, if nothing else, provides amazing evidence for the brutality of a Roman execution.
Third, a burial cloth proves Jesus was given a burial fit for a king. Only the rich and royal enjoyed the luxury of a sepulcher (Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb owned by the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea), as Matthew 27:57-61 records:
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
The biblical narrative clearly speaks to a burial cloth. In fact, it gives a reason for its existence and preservation. Perhaps Matthew’s inclusion of this detail is a tip to his readers about a piece of evidence that early Christian believers surely would’ve have secretly and proudly mentioned.
After all, it’s clear evidence that Jesus was both dead and buried.
Ironically, it was two Pharisees who secured Pilate’s consent and performed the burial rites for Jesus. John’s gospel adds that Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, accompanied Joseph, also a member of the Council, and helped him wrap his body (John 19:38-42). This is significant as none of Jesus’ disciples had such social and political standing to access Pontius Pilate but these two high-ranking Pharisees (who equally consented to Jesus’ execution). Without Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, Jesus probably never would’ve been buried. No good Jew (properly cleansed for Passover) would touch a dead body and definitely no right-thinking Pharisee would risk it (as everything he touched would also be defiled). Yet Joseph and Nicodemus were secret believers. And they were clearly aware of Jesus’ claims of resurrection. Consequently, they willingly risk reputation and forfeited their right to Passover.
These two Pharisees used two pieces of linen: a large piece of cloth to wrap the body and a facial cloth that covered the face. Most people have heard of the Shroud of Turin, but have you heard of the Sudarium of Oviedo? It’s a bloodier piece of cloth with no image and a harder historical timeline to follow than the Shroud, but remains another compelling evidence to the biblical narrative. The entire body was wrapped tightly (with up to 75 pounds of burial spices!). John also explains how this burial shroud had strips woven into it that tied off the body. This is significant because John records only Peter and John completely entered the tomb and handled the burial cloths. Could the shroud have still been tied up but flat, absent a body? It’s hard to steal a body, leaving behind the shroud, without unwrapping it. Furthermore, again, who would risk becoming ceremonially unclean on the highest Jewish Sabbath just to steal the body of a dead man (and remove the shroud to do it)? Rome had no motivation to steal. The existence of this burial cloth suggests the body wasn’t moved or removed, but rather simply vanished!
Joseph secured the body of Jesus in a new tomb protected by a large rock. The “new tomb” is significant as tombs often contained more than one body in various states of decomposition. Families often owned a tomb to share for loved ones. Sepulchers were not permanent residences for the dead. They only served to “rest” and decompose the body. Once fully decomposed, the bones were transferred to an ossuary and stored elsewhere. The point here: Jesus was dead. Joseph handled him as dead and wrapped Jesus as a dead body.
Two additional witnesses observed Joseph burying Jesus: Mary Magdalene and another Mary. This is an interesting legal fact that Matthew inserts, as it takes two witnesses to corroborate any story in a Jewish court of law (Deuteronomy 19:15). Surprisingly, it was the wrong sex to confirm this historical event, as women were considered unreliable witnesses. So why would Matthew cite women? First of all, because it adds two more witnesses to the burial (four witnesses is very strong testimony). Secondly, women plus two members of the Sanhedrin (Joseph and Nicodemus) gave them credence. And, finally, if there were any doubt, you’d never confirm your story with women as your witnesses.
So the Shroud of Turin is compelling evidence to corroborate the burial narrative. It’s the type of evidence admissible before a court of law.
It is the BEST archaeological evidence for Jesus’ death, burial and Resurrection.
If you only choose to believe it is what it is.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Revelation 14:13)
Blessed are those who die “in the Lord,” John the Revelator wrote.
Blessed is the believer because death no longer stings, separates or steals. The Resurrection of Jesus the Christ ended death’s long war of terror against the human race. Death was vanquished and utterly “destroyed” by this historical event another apostle penned (I Corinthians 15:25-27; 2 Timothy 2:10).
It is pretty good news.
Unless you don’t believe that it happened or, at least happened as we know it. After all, the skeptic has twisted, reimagined, dismissed and fabricated the Resurrection narrative since it occurred. Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. It’s a fairy tale penned by his devoted and desperate disciples, perhaps seeking religious power “in his name.” Or maybe Jesus wasn’t really dead. Maybe the whole event is nothing more than mass psychosis or delusion. If nothing else, it’s pretty clear the body was stolen. The Muslim argues that Judas Iscariot, not Jesus, was the one crucified (among other contentions).
There are plenty of alternative theories to counter the preposterous idea that a Jewish rabbi, two thousand years ago, raised himself from the dead. That’s crazy.
Yes, it is.
If Jesus truly was just a man.
But it’s certainly plausible (and equally possible) that he is WHO he claimed to be: God in the flesh (John 1:1-5, 14).
From that view, it’s far more crazy to think you could KILL God and keep the Almighty and Omnipotent in the grave. A resurrection miracle for God is child’s play. It pales in comparison to creating the whole universe, earth and all life in six days…out of nothing. Sometimes we think too small of God.
The problem facing the skeptics, atheists and unbelievers is any alternative solution they offer only creates more questions. Rather than resolving the resurrection puzzle they actually muddy the water more:
- JESUS DIDN’T RESURRECT! IT’S AN EARLY CHURCH LIE. Okay, then why would every one of Jesus’ original twelve apostles–if in a collective and creative conspiracy to launch a new world religion–all die torturous deaths without a single recant? Now, a group of deluded followers might die for a lie together but Jesus’ apostles, according to historical church testimony, died alone, far apart and with much pain. Andrew was crucified in Asia Minor. Thomas was viciously speared in India. Matthew was stabbed to death in Ethiopia. James was stoned and clubbed to death in Syria. Paul was beheaded in Rome. And these are but a few of the apostolic martyrs. And yet, not one recanted their Faith to save their own neck (including Saul/Paul who once viciously opposed and persecuted Christians). It’s strong evidence that they not only believed the Resurrection happened, they knew it happened. They witnessed the Resurrected Christ. The resurrection of Jesus turned cowardice into courageous missionaries, doubt into daring leaders and downcast disciples into devoted evangelists. The Resurrection creates positive and productive change to which skeptics have no apologetic.
- JESUS DIDN’T DIE ON THE CROSS. HE WAS STILL ALIVE! Hmmm…then how could Jesus survive a Roman crucifixion and then revive his own strength, without medical care? Also known as the “swoon theory,” this has been widely rejected (even among clear-minded skeptics). Roman executioners were masters at murder and faced their own death sentence if they erroneously mishandled a death penalty case. And let’s be honest, the reality is most crucified individuals died on their own. Some hung on their crosses for days, while birds and wild animals ate their flesh, until they died. Most passed away from asphyxiation, a well-documented consequence in crucifixion. But the Christ narrative is even more gruesome than most. Jesus also experienced an oft-deadly scourging prior to crucifixion. He was gouged with thorns. He was beaten in his long walk to Golgotha. And then speared to prove his death. In order to hasten death, bones were routinely broken but not so with Jesus (John 19:31-37). He was already dead. Skeptics want reasonable people to believe Jesus somehow survived such tortures, but even if he had miraculous strength to revive, certainly the cool sepulcher would’ve finished him off. No, Jesus was dead. In fact, Jesus was buried as dead by grieving friends (who would’ve moved heaven and earth to hear even the faintest heartbeat or breath).
- THIS IS ALL A MASS DELUSION! Seriously? Is it truly possible to devise a mass “resurrection” delusion of this nature (or is the skeptic the one living a delusion)? According to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Jesus appeared to multiple people in various places at different times, including as many as 500 people at once. How could so many people experience the same reality (Jesus is alive) and come to the same conclusion (Jesus really is alive)? We’re not talking temporary hypnosis or magic trick. These disciples believed and lived with a willingness to follow Jesus to their own death. The truth? It would require a greater miracle to engineer a mass delusion of this magnitude than a resurrection.
- EVERYONE KNOWS THE DISCIPLES HAD MOTIVE TO STEAL THE BODY. IT WAS BURIED ELSEWHERE. Nice try, but if the body was stolen, then why wasn’t it produced…ever? This is the oldest lie in the book, even recorded by Matthew. Just tell the people the body was stolen. Case closed. It might’ve worked if true, especially if the body was never found, but it fails miserably to explain why Christians, again, would give their lives for a lie. Certainly one desperate disciple, wanting to save his neck, would’ve cracked and fessed up. But the reason they didn’t “fess up” was because they couldn’t. They had seen Jesus alive or heard from reliable witnesses of his resurrection. So who do you believe? A bunch of Roman soldiers under orders (and bribes)? The religious leaders harboring a grudge? Or do you believe followers of a resurrected rabbi that modeled his love, service, sacrifice, gifts, preaching and sharing like it was their last day on earth? I’d believe his followers. Dead men tell no tales. Resurrected ones create new ones.
At the end of the day, the atheist, skeptic and nonbeliever can debate, denounce and denigrate Christianity and the Resurrection, but their arguments fail like cheap paper vessels: they don’t hold much water very long.
The evidence for Jesus’ life is overwhelming.
The proof of his death and resurrection are compelling.
It requires far more FAITH to believe it didn’t happen.
And that TRUTH ain’t never going to change.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:13-14)
Recently, my wife and I went to see the new Pure Flix movie The Case for Christ. The film chronicles the long, sometimes laborious but ultimately glorious, journey from atheism to faith by Christian apologist Lee Strobel.
The devil took a serious thumping when his prized skeptic Strobel found faith and slipped from his gnarly grasp. Strobel, a self-proclaimed atheist, was an award-winning investigative journalist for The Chicago Tribune. As part of Strobel’s conversion, and long after, he put those journalism skills to work to investigate the claims of Christianity. In the process, he penned several million-seller books that are essentially legal briefs (or cases) to prove God, Jesus, the Resurrection, the Scriptures and Christianity.
In his new feature film, Strobel argues strongly that the flashpoint for Christianity is the Resurrection of Jesus. Nothing else Jesus said, did, or predicted matters if the Resurrection is false. Christianity, as Paul argued to the Corinthians, is nothing but an empty shell.
It’s also nothing new.
Ever since the first Easter Sunday, Christians have joyfully pointed to this historical event as the REASON for Faith. It’s the motivation for belief. Death has no more say, no more sting, no more stranglehold. Jesus’ Resurrection changed the rules of the game. What once bound all men and buried them far from God was death. The biblical writers called this place the Sheol (Hebrew: Genesis 42:38; 44:29; 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 7:9; 21:13; Psalm 89:48; Proverbs 1:12) or Hades (Greek: Matthew 11:23; Luke 16:23; Revelation 20:13). It was the land of the dead. A place of separation. If there was any good news it was that Israel held a “get out of death” card, a promise of coming Resurrection (Daniel 12:1-3; John 11:23-25).
Nevertheless, until Jesus, whenever a person died, the Scriptures reveal he or she descended down into the Sheol or Hades. Nobody went up into “paradise” or in the Greek idea to a “third heaven” where God dwelt (2 Corinthians 12:1-4; Revelation 2:7). Yes, there were exceptions. Some were “caught up.” Enoch just disappeared one day (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5). Elijah raptured on a heavenly chariot (2 Kings 2:11-12). And Moses got a taste of both places, as Jewish tradition taught he was assumed out of Sheol into paradise by Michael the archangel. Paul was “caught up” to this paradise. But everyone else–righteous or not–took the down elevator at death. Can you imagine now the angst and anger it created when Jesus informed a lowly thief that he would join him IN “paradise” (Luke 23:43)? That was coded “resurrection” talk. The thief was in and the Pharisees were out. The last shall be first.
And then Jesus starts waking up the dead. Just like Elijah did (I Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:32-35). Ironically, raising the dead was an occasional Messiah miracle and only three accounts are recorded: the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:13-15), Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-26) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44).
Halfway through his ministry, Jesus enjoyed a mountaintop retreat with his inner three disciples (Peter, James and John). Suddenly Elijah and Moses crash the party in their “transfigured” eternal bodies that were “dazzling white” (Mark 9:2-10). It must’ve been something to see. In was a slice of Heaven on earth. However, such blessings were reserved for the resurrected dead, as Jesus taught his curious disciples after the event. Mark writes: Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
Don’t say a word, said Jesus. We’re clueless anyway, replied his disciples.
It takes someone very, very special to perform a resurrection. Many a faith charlatan has faked lesser miracles, but who can raise the dead? Jesus’ miracle ministry definitely brought him press and pressure. You want to get yourself killed? Start raising the dead. In fact, it wasn’t until after Lazarus’ resurrection the Sanhedrin commenced a plot to kill Jesus (John 11:45-53).
But if you really want to cause a stir, preach your own death and resurrection. Mark records that Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31).
That’s serious lunatic talk. It’s one thing to chat up your own murder but something altogether crazy to prophesy your own resurrection.
Maybe that’s why atheists, skeptics and unbelievers are puzzled by the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. How do you rationalize the irrational? How do you explain the unexplainable? How do you defend the indefensible? Every other great guru, religious leader and spiritual master carved a career and created a following. A few nut jobs, reading bad tea leaves, predicted their death but none seriously dared to suggest they’d be back among the living within 72 hours. That’s insane. That’s crazy. That’s nonsensical. That’s a fairy tale.
It certainly is…unless you’re talking about God in the Flesh.
That’s who Jesus was.
And who Lee Strobel soon discovered that he was not.
The most influential person in history wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury banking on some family fortune. He wasn’t educated by the elite, groomed by the fashionistas, manicured by the media or mentored by the successful. His birth made no headlines. His biography was brief.
And yet this man remains the most quoted, respected, honored and successful person in history. He is loved by celebrities, kings, presidents, potentates, tycoons, poets and academics. His legacy is felt in the minstrel’s music, the painter’s brush and the poet’s line. All other great men and women pale in comparison to this one single life.
This influential leader was born in a relative’s outbuilding in a small, obscure town under foreign oppression. His desperately poor parents were troubled by scandal and tortured by a political paranoid. They even relocated temporarily to another continent to escape death. The boy grew up in a sketchy town widely known as the butt of a joke, hanging with people considered ignorant, average and common.
Maybe that’s why the hoi polloi loved him. He gave them help and hope, love and liberty, respect and restoration. He was their type of guy. Working class. Middle class. Redneck and blue collar.
Surprisingly, this influential teacher was largely rejected. Many in his own family avoided him. His peers criticized him while opponents attacked him. Ultimately, he was deserted by even his closest friends. He’s not what anyone expected. He didn’t fit their mold. He didn’t work their system. He didn’t play by their rules. He never labored abroad, earned a degree, won awards or wrote a book. He never sought fame, power or riches. Most of his influence and impact would happen after he was gone.
In life he proved a controversial failure. He never built a successful brand or business, nor owned land or property. His resume was a litany of losses. His references suspect. His authority questioned. His ideas challenged. Thousands abandoned him. He angered the religious establishment, confused the governmental powers, discouraged the seekers and disappointed his disciples. He was labeled a loose cannon, rebel and heretic. He was called a liar, deceiver and fool. Even his closest followers denied, doubted and betrayed him. Unlike other revolutionaries he never raised his voice or the sword, used threats or bribes, censored critics or complainers. This man of sorrows, with a life tattooed by failure and rejection, was charged for crimes he didn’t commit, sentenced to a death he didn’t deserve and executed by those he didn’t offend.
And yet, he still changed the world forever.
On his deathbed, only a scattered few paid their respects. He died in his prime…mostly alone, surprisingly despised and roundly rejected. He was crowned with thorns, nailed naked to wood and hung beside crooks. He was smeared, sneered and speared, then hastily buried in a borrowed tomb. His only property left to gamblers. The few that still followed locked themselves behind doors, fearing they were next.
Jesus did everything wrong. He loved the wrong people. He taught the wrong things. He performed miracles on the wrong day. He picked the wrong disciples. He angered the wrong powers. He was born into the wrong family, under the wrong circumstances, and grew up in the wrong place. He had the wrong education, the wrong plans and suffered a wrong ending.
And yet every wrong made it all right.
After all, you can’t keep a good man down…especially if He’s more than a man.
Jesus did what no man can do: He rose from the dead. In doing so, he proved His Divinity. He also revealed the last can arrive first, the least can end greatest, the insignificant can become important, the weak can be strong, the small can grow tall, the old can be new, the wrong can be right and the dead can live. He showed you don’t need breaks, luck, license or blessing. You don’t need the right name, face, place, race or gender. You don’t need to build a media empire, carve a social standing or amass a business fortune. You don’t need the biggest church, the largest budget, the most programs, the best facilities or the sharpest staff. You don’t need an agent, promoter or publicist. You don’t need magic tricks, incentive plans, investment strategies or clever programming.
You just need to follow this Man. And that’s not easy. You might lose everything. You might be hated, mocked or criticized. You might even get crucified.
It’s no wonder that two thousand years later Jesus the Christ remains the most influential, respected and loved person. Everyone knows his name, even if they utter it in curse. His disciples cover the planet. His teachings blanket the world. His impact surrounds the earth. Jesus’ birth and death are revered holidays. We mark history by his life. We quote his sayings, reproduce his teachings and model his behavior. His followers have erected hospitals, shelters, and food banks. They’ve started countless missions, ministries and movements in His Name.
Nobody ever did what this Galilean guru did. Nobody will do it ever again.
His solitary life changed everything. And so can you.
Perhaps you feel like a failure. Perhaps you are deeply wounded. Perhaps you are weak, sick or dying. Perhaps you doubt God’s goodness and power. Perhaps you question Jesus’ love and grace. Perhaps you’re addicted, victimized or abused. Perhaps you feel lost, forgotten or hopeless. Perhaps you wonder how you’ll survive another day or next year.
Life is hard. Thankfully, Jesus came to earth to show us how to LIVE.
And this Messiah modeled success in failure, confidence despite fear, victory over temptation, joy within tragedy, and life from death. By all human standards, Jesus should be at best a historical footnote. A nice story of a good guy who tried hard and failed.
But the Christmas gospel is more than a nice story, it’s a testament to how Divine Power mixes with human frailty, fault and failure. It’s about angels on high and dirty shepherds, a Bethlehem star and a stable of manure and hay, and Holy God inhabiting infant flesh. It’s about LIFE abundant. The real good news is that Jesus didn’t come to make you good or nice or religious. He came to bring you LIFE no matter what.
No matter where you started. No matter where you are now. No matter where you’re going.
No matter what…Life! And life beyond measure…a wonderful life!
No doubt the real reason wisemen still seek Him.
The Nativity Story is legendary. Most USAmericans have heard it, or variations of it. Unfortunately, too often our recollection doesn’t come from Scripture but traditional carols. We Three Kings of Orient Are. Silent Night. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Away in a Manger. In general, like the legend of Santa Claus, many speculative and even erroneous ideas have sprouted.
One of the interesting (and wrong) legends about Jesus’ birth is there was “no room in the inn.” It’s not true, largely due to a terrible mistranslation of the original Greek. The word Luke employs for “inn” (kataluma) is the SAME word he uses to describe the “upper” or “guest” room where his disciples enjoyed their “last supper” together (Luke 2:7; 22:11). Luke clearly uses a different Greek word for “inn” (pandeion) in the “Good Samaritan” parable (Luke 10:34).
But there’s more that we have missed or gotten wrong.
Like the fact Mary and Joseph weren’t two lone kids desperately seeking shelter so the virgin could give birth. The facts state otherwise. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census law by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). Joseph was in the lineage of David and probably had numerous relatives, perhaps brothers and sisters, still living in this town of less than a thousand people. So the couple had plenty of lodging options.
When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they soon learned space was limited in the normal “guest” rooms. First century homes were small and most were single level. A guest room suggested a larger house. In most homes, the entire family slept in the same room and guests would’ve joined them if room was available. A guest room was a bonus room. The Nativity story states when Mary and Joseph arrived, there was no longer any room in the “kataluma” or guest room (Luke 2:7). The couple were surprise visitors, though definitely welcomed. In the first century, informing relatives of a pending stay was impossible. You just showed up and took whatever available floor space remained.
So where did Mary and Joseph find sleeping quarters (and eventually birth their baby boy)? The Scriptures reference a “manger” (Luke 2:7) and that means they bunked in the barn with the animals. If a house was large enough to have a “guest” (kataluma) room then they also had a barn for their livestock (sheep, chickens, cattle). A manger was used to feed the livestock. Some Bible scholars suggest Jesus was born in a cave but that’s unlikely since most caves would’ve been outside the walls of Bethlehem. The city gates and walls were critical to protect the citizens. Bethlehem was large enough to have a gated wall. Consequently, the only ones outside the walls were outlaws, thieves and shepherds (basically akin to today’s migrant farm worker). Caves were not exactly the safest places either. We know from Luke’s account the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the Christ child so Jesus was born inside, not outside, the city (Luke 2:15).
The barn was a lot like our garages today. Livestock were for transportation and work. They needed protection (from theft) and provision. Some barns were separate structures but in many first century houses they were connected. Remember the reference to the “upper room” where Jesus communed with his disciples (Luke 22:12)? An “upper” room suggests a “lower” room, and families wealthy enough to own a two-level house basically lived above their livestock. In other words, the “lower” room was likely the barn as it was safer and more convenient. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus slept in the garage or the lower room with the family livestock. Such accommodations aren’t unusual, even by today’s standards. Barns have often been great places to sleep for the weary traveler.
Luke 2:6 also suggests that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem already when the Messiah was born. They came for the census but her pregnancy made them stay. Evidently, the guest room was still occupied (perhaps by another new mother), so Mary and Joseph billeted in the garage (or barn). The Scriptures don’t say Mary gave birth alone or in the barn though. It’s just where the baby Jesus was staying the night the shepherds visited. Mary probably gave birth in the house, aided by female relatives and midwives, and then moved newborn Jesus to a plush manger crib for the night.
Later the magi (wisemen) will visit Jesus, most likely still staying at the same relative’s house, except now sleeping in the “guest” room (Matthew 2:11). Why didn’t Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth? After all, Herod’s edict to kill all boys under two years of age suggest the young couple stayed in Bethlehem longer than just a few weeks or months (Matthew 2:16). They perhaps were in Bethlehem for the duration, but left for Egypt under duress thanks to a “warning” dream. Nevertheless, they went to Egypt and not Nazareth. The reasons? The rumor mill was still hot in Mary’s hometown. Joseph was married to a pregnant Mary (not carrying his son)–a crime worthy of death. Egypt was on a different continent and nobody would know them there. It was the perfect place for this troubled couple to hide out.
Consequently, Jesus was born in a barn but raised on the run.
Here’s what we know for sure:
- Baby Jesus wasn’t born alone (no doubt many other relatives witnessed the event, besides those Bethlehem shepherds).
- Neither did his parents travel door to door, desperately seeking shelter on that first Christmas Eve. Actually inhospitality was a grievous social “sin” in first century Palestine.
- The manger was in a barn connected to the house and probably inside it. It was a secure, warm and comfortable location.
- Mary and Joseph had family, room and time in Bethlehem. They stayed in the little town for months, perhaps nearly two years before escaping for Egypt (a trip financed by the magi’s gold). Joseph was probably working his carpenter trade at the time. Only after years in exile would they return to Nazareth, no doubt with an extra baby brother or sister in tow.
Puts a new spin on an old story, doesn’t it?
The Grinch desperately tried to steal Christmas in 1994, 2005 and 2011, but 2016 might be the year he finally gets the deed done.
After all, Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. And it’s proving controversial. Some have already called on pastors not to cancel Sunday services. The reasons are good, but it may be too late.
For centuries in Christendom, a Christmas Sunday was particularly blessed. The “Christ Mass” and Sunday (selected because it honored Jesus’ resurrection) were highly honored days within Christian culture. After all, it was widely believed Jesus was conceived and died on the same day. And since the ancient Jewish calendar placed Christ’s death as March 25, then nine months after this day (December 25) was the date for the Messiah’s birth. Consequently, when his birthday and his Resurrection (Sun)day landed together, it was something truly special.
Nobody missed mass on a Christmas Sunday.
But that was then and this is now.
In 2016, the tipping point for the decline in American churchianity will be very evident, I fear. Although I hope I’m wrong, my guess is Christmas Sunday morning services will prove to be among the lowest attended all year. Many churches have already shuttered services. Still other congregations are scaling back or reducing services to accommodate lower attendances.
The good news? What still draws USAmericans are Christmas Eve services…where I’m definitely predicting larger than normal crowds. Most of America’s 223 million Christians traditionally gather to remember the Christ child’s birth on Christmas Eve, but it remains to be seen if they’ll return hours later for a second service. Many church watchdogs feel it’s unlikely and suspect the sanctuary will be eerily emptier on Sunday morning, December 25, 2016.
Let’s face facts: Sunday morning is hardly sacred anymore. It’s just another day for Americans to play, shop, dine, sleep and work. Regular church attendance has been sliding for years (in some parts of the country its in single digits). The average churchgoer now attends around two to three times a month, even in the buckle of the Bible belt. This explains the traditional Easter bounce, when on Resurrection Sunday, Christians collectively gather and, consequently, boost attendances. This year, Christmas will likely produce the opposite effect and collectively be a day USAmericans choose to sabbath at home. Many churches have simply decided not to fight the obvious, but is this caving into culture or an attempt to serve the needs of our context?
Will people, including many regular attenders, stay away on Christmas Sunday? And why does Christmas Eve still attract like the star in the east? The reasons are intriguing.
First, because Christmas Eve services are often better designed and produced than normal Sunday services (and people know it). Furthermore, Christmas Eve services don’t separate families, focus upon traditions (carols, hanging of the greens) and are more experiential (candlelight communion, living nativities). Christmas Eve messages are simpler and shorter. Offerings are designated for community need. Ironically, the churches who draw the largest crowds for Christmas Eve are those who still go old school. Here in Boise it’s standing room only at the Cathedral of the Rockies every Christmas Eve when pipe organs, Christmas hymns, candlelightings, handbells, high-back pews and inspiring stained-glass windows make the yuletide bright.
A second reason for this year’s mass Christmas Day exodus is because the holiday has become the day to stay home with family and friends. Unlike Easter and Thanksgiving, nearly everything is closed on Christmas day, especially in the A.M. It’s the only calendar day that most restaurants, shops and stores shut down. Families also have special traditions, customs and rituals for Christmas and many of these treasured traditions happen during the morning hours. Just like churches used to fight the Super Bowl on Sunday night (and lost), now churches who plan Sunday services for Christmas day will also lose to Christmas morning gift exchanges. This year, more than ever, even regular attenders will stay home…especially since they’ve already participated in Christmas Eve services.
A third reason also presents a brewing problem: the average church service requires a boatload of volunteers and they’ll likely be missing. Churches rely upon multiple volunteers to greet, pass offering buckets, lead (and play) worship songs, run lights and sound, teach Sunday lessons to children and teens, distribute bulletins and countless other necessary tasks. Since most church families will prefer to stay home or wish to be out of town, including those most likely to volunteer, the stress to find replacements is already proving taxing. It’s not like the old days when you could hold a church service with a preacher and a piano player. Today’s event-driven worship services require numerous individuals to produce a service. Furthermore, many volunteers will have already served Christmas Eve (including multiple services in larger congregations), so it’ll be hard to persuade them back for another round in the morning. Finally, it’ll be downright impossible to find teachers and workers for the nursery and children’s ministry on Christmas Day. And since most families will likely be the first ones to miss church on Christmas Sunday, even if a teacher is replaced who’s to say there’ll even be students?
Consequently, many church leaders are rethinking a Christmas Day worship service. And some have already concluded it ain’t worth the time or energy. It’s like Sunday night church. Television killed Sunday night church services in the 1970s. By the late 1980s, most churches finally ditched the dead dinosaur. Similar ditchings have happened with church camp, revival services, Bible Bowl, pews, organs and pulpits. All good ideas and useful in their contextual and cultural era, but are now largely out of step (despite detractors who argue otherwise).
With that said, I’m not sure a full shuttering of services is necessary. Just don’t be surprised if only a scattered few show up on Christmas Sunday (the optimists predict 50% of normal). In fact, I think an unplugged, even acapella, scaled-back worship experience could be attractive, especially if its late in the morning (11 a.m.) or early afternoon (1 p.m.). An early morning service will most certainly crash this year. If possible, the services need to require few volunteers. Use only the necessary people. You don’t need a full band, maybe just a couple of guitars or a keyboard.
Another outside the box idea is a return to the midnight Christ-mass (candlelight communion). Historically, Christians gathered at midnight on Christmas Eve to celebrate the Eucharist. What if your church held a midnight service that also served as your Sunday worship service too? Many Christians, particularly those from mainline and Catholic traditions, value and seek midnight worship experiences on Christmas eve. Christmas day is then a time to rest, open gifts, eat and celebrate family. It’s still not too late to add such a service.
For those who are cancelling services altogether, it might be good to publish service times for other churches in town. After all, you might have a few faithful saints who still want to attend a Christmas Sunday morning church service.
Of course the wild card in this whole mix is the weather. If the U.S. is hit by a monster storm (or storms) on Christmas Sunday, that will make it even worse on attendance counts. But, in general, this Christmas Sunday will reveal the terrible, troubling, continuing tragedy of the decline of American churchianity. Like it or not, it’s getting easier and easier for western Christians to stay away from church.
The old hymn extols how we “heard the bells on Christmas Day.” It’s a warm and welcome yuletide sentiment. Unfortunately, few churches now have steeples or bells. The times have changed. Consequently, Christmas Eve services is when the Church should unleash her finest creativity, best resources and greatest talent. It’s the best window all year to attract the de-churched, former churched and unchurched.
And when Christmas falls on a Sunday, like this year, we might also need to relax, reinvent and reimagine. If its best to cancel, that’s understandable. If it’s better to meet, then so be it. Perhaps it’s profitable to remember Paul’s words to the Romans: One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord (Romans 14:5-6).
Ultimately, American Christians will vote with their feet this year…they’ll certainly flock to Christmas Eve services and don’t be surprised if they’re not back in the A.M.
Bells or no bells.