The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14-15 NIV).
From the online headlines and breathless TV reporting, you'd have thought Pope Benedict XVI tried to cancel Christmas. "Pope debunks Christmas myths" was a "CNN Online" caption. "Pope's book on Jesus challenges Christmas traditions" read another. Give the man a break!
What Pope Benedict writes in his new book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives is what every New Testament scholar knows, and what many non-scholars have discovered, from reading the Gospels carefully. There is certainly nothing seditious or heretical in what his most recent volume offers its readers.
From The Infancy Narratives, a good encyclopedia, or a number of other reliable sources anyone can access, it is clear that fact and fantasy about Christ's birth have come to be intermingled in the popular telling of the story.
The Year: How could Jesus have been born in 6 B.C. (i.e., six years "before the birth of Christ")?
Calendars were not reworked when Jesus was born. A monk-mathematician named Dionysius Exiguus calculated the date of Jesus' birth and reset the Western calendar in the sixth century. Counting from the founding of Rome, he missed it by a few years. (Remember, there were no computers to help him!) By the time his mistake was discovered, the new calendar had been in use too long to change all the dating based on it. So our best evidence is that Jesus was born around 6 B.C. The Bible itself gives no year — much less does it specify December 25 — for the event. No one knows for sure.
The Location: Wasn't he born in a barn — with sheep and cattle nearby?
Again, we have neither photos nor details we might like. Luke says the infant was laid in a manger (i.e., feeding trough). Whether the shelter itself was outdoors, in a cave, or part of a house, we simply don't know. Whether animals were in view is anybody's guess. Jesus was born to poor parents in humble circumstances.
A vast host of angels appeared to shepherds who were in an open field — a fact that may weigh against the December 25 date! — with their sheep. Luke says they "praised God" and "said" certain things. Pope Benedict correctly points out that the text doesn't actually say they said it in song, although that is a reasonable theory.
More Details: What other items have we assumed or projected into the story?
There were three gifts from the Magi, but the text nowhere says there were "three" Wise Men. The Bible does not give ethnic backgrounds for them either. Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar — these names of the Wise Men are not in the Gospels. However many and whatever their names, the Magi did not see Mary's baby with the shepherds — likely arriving six months to a year later. (Our children used to tease me for putting the Wise Men on a table across the room from the rest of our Nativity Scene!) Other details of the story could be parsed as well.
The point of Christmas — which Puritans in early America refused to celebrate because it was not commanded in Scripture and, besides, was simply too joyous an event — is not chanting or singing angels, present or absent sheep, or conflated Magi and shepherds. The point is God's faithful love:
The Redeemer has come!
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people" (Luke 1:68 NIV).
Our Savior is born!
"Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11).
God is with us, Immanuel!
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us" (Matthew 1:22-23).