In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:1-7)
In Luke’s Gospel, this is the essence of The Christmas Legend, carefully inscribed so many years ago and handed down to us today.
If you’re like me, that last sentence made you a little uncomfortable. I don’t typically use the word legend to describe the story of Christmas because I hear in it the modern connotation of a great story in which fact and fiction are freely mixed…and if I believe anything at all, I believe that every single word of the Bible is perfectly true.
That’s not, however, what the word legend originally meant. The Latin root that the word comes from originally had to do with things that were written down. For instance, our words legible and legend were once very closely related. Legible originally meant “things that can be read” and legend originally meant “things that are to be read.” The underlying idea wasn’t about fact or fiction, but the incredible importance of something– so much so, that it must be written down.
It’s hard for us to grasp in our modern world what a powerful distinction that was – that something was so important that it must be written down. In our day it’s not just that we have an endless supply of paper, pens, copy machines, and computers – but we are now constantly writing on our ever-present mobile devices. We can hardly get ourselves to STOP writing. I look down the pew in church, even during moments of worship, and I see people still typing away on their iPhones. And let’s be honest about it: A lot of what we put down today isn’t worth writing at all. Surely the world would be a better place if a few of our late night tweets and hastily sent email responses went un-written.
But in the ancient world, very little was written down. Writing materials were scarce, the process was elaborate, and the percentage of people who could read was small. Therefore, because of the exorbitant cost and painstaking effort that was required, only those things that were most critically important were written down.
In the ancient world there were a million stories told every single day – but only a precious few were so important that they were written down to be precisely read and remembered. These stories were legend.
The biblical Christmas Story – in the truest, original sense – is the most completely true and vitally important legend that the world has ever known: That the one, true God of the universe so loved the world, that He sent His one and only Son, to be born of flesh and blood to show us perfect love, teach us perfect truth, and die a perfect death on the cross for our sins, that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have the free gift of eternal life.
Luke explains at the beginning of his Gospel why he went to such painstaking detail to historically document and write down the Gospel of Jesus Christ beginning with the baby born in Bethlehem.
“…it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4)
This story of Jesus is without exception, completely true. This story must be, without exception, heard by all. The story of Christmas is Legend.