OTS OF THE STORIES we remember from childhood have a stock beginning. They often start out, “Once upon a time.” That’s quite different from the opening line of St. Luke’s narrative about John the Baptist:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
What’s the point of a story that starts out like that? It’s tempting to ask who cares about all that. I believe, though, that the point isn’t so much about any of these tetrarchs or high priests, themselves.
The point is that Jesus is real. Jesus isn’t made up. The Christmas story isn’t just a fairy tale we read to children. It’s not one of Aesop’s fables. Christmas actually happened. Jesus was actually born on Earth.
When? “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee.”
Where? In Bethlehem of Judea.
Who were His parents? A young woman named Mary and a man named Joseph.
This isn’t all just “based on a true story.” It actually happened! This is the point that St. Luke makes so pointedly at the outset of his story about John the Baptist.
Some of our most beloved stories are associated with Christmas: The Polar Express, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, Elf, A Charlie Brown Christmas, etc. But the story of how Jesus was born in a stable outside of Bethlehem is not just another story among all these others. It’s the real deal.
In our Advent meditations, let’s not romanticize the Nativity of Our Lord too much. After all, we’re not preparing to retell a cherished fairy tale from our youth. We’re preparing to enter into the timeless reality of the Christmas mystery.