Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: He Came

Most of us have either read or heard the history of how and why the early Christians settled on December 25th as the date for celebrating the birth of Jesus. The entire story is too long and convoluted for a column. But, if you would like to hear the history again, or for the first time, come by and see me.

There are multiple reasons why we know Jesus was not born in December. For instance, shepherds did not "watch their flocks by night" in December, but in the spring of the year. Jesus may have been born in 4 B.C. rather than in the zero midpoint between B.C. and A.D. The dating of "Anno Domini" ("The Year of Our Lord") is also an interesting and convoluted piece of history.

The specific details of the "when, where and how" concerning the birth of Jesus are of interest, and to some they are essentially important. And, I would not knowingly do anything to disturb the details people may hold as an essential part of their faith. The essential part of my own Christian faith construct, however, is not the historical details of when, where, and how Jesus came into the world, but simply that he came. Somewhere on or near the dividing line between B.C. and A.D. Jesus came into the world, and the world has never been the same. One night, in time and history, God slipped down the back stairs of heaven with a babe in his arms. Details may be vague, conflicting, and disputed, but among Christians the fact that he came is not in dispute. This is the centerpiece of the Christian faith.

The Bible teaches that Jesus came "at the right time". There are two words in Biblical Greek which sound very much alike, but they are very different. One of those words is "chronos", from which we get the words chronological and chronology. This is the timetable we know as twenty-four hours. It is clock and calendar time. The Bible seldom, if ever, uses chronos; its chief interest in in "kairos", which we understand as the right time, the opportune moment. It refers to something that happens at the "right time" without regard to what the clock or calendar may show. When the Bible speaks of Jesus coming "at the right time" the work kairos, not chronos is used. Biblically speaking, "kairos" is God's time.

It is very helpful to establish a specific time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, even if the exact time on the calendar is in dispute. We tend to complain about the commercial exploitation of Christmas. One theologian called Christmas "the disneyfication of Christianity". And, indeed, it is seriously exploited for profit. But let us not forget that it is also a time that is used for good by many. In this time of economic difficulty, when many families hardly have money for food, much less money for Christmas gifts, churches and service clubs, more than ever before, are collecting food and Christmas gifts for children to be given to financially strapped families. As we "warm" to the season, there is a certain spirit that comes over us. We want to give and become more like the one whose birth we celebrate. Contemporary Christmas celebration is not all bad!

It does not matter that there was not a lighted Christmas tree in Bethlehem in the stable when Jesus was born. It is not important that the idea of a Christmas tree comes from a pagan source. There is something about the lights and the decorations that seem to stifle our crass cynicism and bring out the best in us. Who can fail to see the sparkle in the eyes of little children, and the softened spirit in the eyes and attitudes of experience-hardened adults when Christmas lights shine in the darkness?

We are reminded that someone important came into our world "at the right time", and that he is still here, and we are the better for it.