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Merry New Year

Merry New Year

The year 2024 is upon us. The joy of the Christmas season is in the rearview mirror, and the hopes of the future are kindled. This will be my habitual devotional-like update. I have also attached a few videos from Niger. Thank you so much for your thoughts and support. I pray that the new year brings you spiritual blessings.

In the minds of many Christians, the timeline of Jesus’ life skips from his birth to the opening days of his recorded ministry. But of course, Jesus was about 30 when he stepped into the public light, and many events took place after the advent of the Christmas story. Luke does give a glimpse of Jesus at the age of 12 in the Temple, but that’s it – just a glimpse. The majority of Jesus’ life is essentially dark. However, the Bible presents one anecdote of Jesus’ early childhood, when he was two years old, but many readers miss it because it has been dissolved into the overarching account of Jesus’ birth. The biblical details of that story, the story of the wise men, collide with modern Christian traditions.

For as long as the stories of Jesus have existed, Christianity has collectively made certain general assumptions about a wide range of topics, and these assumptions aren’t always based on sound biblical inspection. An interesting aspect of ancient cultures around the world is that marking the day of a person’s birth was a rare undertaking, reserved for royalty or members of high society. Marking a birthday is also closely linked to the development and implementation of a calendar system. Many people in Niger, born in villages without sufficient record-keeping systems, don’t know the exact date of their birth. And so, for various reasons, celebrating a birthday is a relatively modern Western concept. As such, religions have historically not widely celebrated the birthdays of their founders. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the first Christmas celebration occurred in Rome roughly three hundred years after his birth. As I sit here and write this, I’m not exactly sure where I was going with this line of cogitation, but since I wrote it, I don’t want to erase it.

Oh yes, cultural Christianity often makes general assumptions about various topics. When church leaders eventually decided to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, quite a river of time had passed under the proverbial bridge since the event itself. As Christmas gathered a growing level of veneration, Christians felt the need to fill in perceived narrative gaps with a multitude of conjectures. For example, there was almost certainly no inn involved. The King James Version makes an unfortunate translational miscue; the line should read that there was no room in the guestroom. Since Bethlehem was the legal family town of Joseph, he and his wife almost definitely stayed with relatives. As a cultural note, most African Christians find it unfathomable to suggest that Joseph and pregnant Mary might have been forced to stay in a hotel. Furthermore, in that era, hotels and inns were in their earliest stages of development and were not particularly wholesome establishments. Another example of conjecture is the idea that Mary and Joseph were unnerved by their situation, being relegated to a dishonorable stable area. However, being from the lower economic level, Mary and Joseph probably weren’t bothered by the agrarian setting of Jesus’ birth. Indeed, the vast majority of humans at the time were intimately engaged in some aspect of agriculture. Another assumption is that there were three wise men. There were three gifts but not necessarily only three men.

Now, let’s continue with the observation that the first stage of Jesus’ life after his birth contains a collision with modern Christian tradition. The aforementioned smart men did not visit Jesus until he was about two years old. So, in all of those nativity scenes, the gift-bearers need to be placed about three feet away from the manger. I jest. Anyway, this biblical observation is not significantly brilliant, and it has been rather broadly discussed in the past few years. Matthew 2:16, in which Herod orders the execution of two-year-old boys, is not a new addition to the Bible. Also, Luke uses the word baby while Matthew uses the word child, and this distinction is rooted in Greek. Thus, the star kept hanging in the sky, and the astronomers from the East kept following it for at least two years. Mary and Joseph may or may not have moved out of the shelter area for animals, but they did stay in Bethlehem the entirety of that time. This information has always been available to any careful reader of the Bible, so it is a mystery how those numberless wise guys found themselves rubbing shoulders with the shepherds. We should take pause to remember that careful Bible observation is always infinitely important.

Lost in the traditional telling is the perseverance of the men from the East. They traveled for two years. They didn’t ride trains and stopover in every little village. They didn’t study the patterns of the star for two years and then hop on an airplane. They didn’t each drive their own air-conditioned Corollas and were simply lost on rural roads for twenty-four months. Their journey consisted of donkeys, camels, carts, and maybe the occasional horse (the Ferrari of the ancient world). It was blazing hot in the summer and frigid in the winter. I wonder if they ever discussed giving up and turning around. These are not Jewish men; they are not particularly invested in Yahweh worship.

The wise men felt compelled by a new spiritual awakening. They were emotionally and intellectually hungry, and they were searching for something majestic in the night sky. When they found the star, they faithfully followed it for as long as it took. May we follow such an example of longsuffering for this new year and for the rest of our lives.
A French news broadcast concerning the Christmas celebration among Niger’s Christians
Children dancing for Christmas
A boy reciting a Christmas memory verse
Young men singing a song for Christmas