Transcript: On Wednesday, James Martin hosted a live discussion with readers about this piece.
The two holidays’ relative importance is even reflected in the church’s liturgical calendar. The Christmas season lasts 12 days, as all carolers know, ending with Epiphany, a feast day in early January commemorating the Wise Men’s visit to the infant Jesus. The Easter season, on the other hand, lasts 50 days. On Sundays during Eastertide, Christians hear dramatic stories of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to his astonished followers.
The overriding importance of Easter is simple: Anyone can be born, but not everyone can rise from the dead.
2. There is biblical consensus on the story of Jesus’s birth.
Even knowledgeable Christians may expect to find the familiar story of Christmas in each of the four Gospels: the journey of Mary on a donkey accompanied by Saint Joseph, the child’s birth in a manger surrounded by animals, shepherds and angels, with the Wise Men appearing shortly afterward.
But two of the Gospels say nothing about Jesus’s birth. The Gospel of Mark — the earliest of the Gospels, written roughly 30 years after Jesus’s crucifixion — does not have a word about the Nativity. Instead it begins with the story of John the Baptist, who announces the impending arrival of the adult Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John is similarly silent about Jesus’s birth.
The two Gospels that do mention what theologians call the “infancy narratives” differ on some significant details. Matthew seems to describe Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, has the two originally living in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home. Both Gospels, though, place Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem.
3. Jesus was an only child.
Catholics, myself included, believe that Mary’s pregnancy came about miraculously — what we call the “virgin birth.” (Frankly, this has always been easy for me to accept: If God can create the universe from nothing, then a virgin birth seems relatively simple by comparison.) Catholics also believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, though many Protestants do not.
So when Catholics stumble upon Gospel passages that speak of Jesus’s brothers and sisters, they are often confused. In the Gospel of Luke, someone tells Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” In Mark’s Gospel, people from Nazareth exclaim: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? . . . Are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” Even Saint Paul called James “the Lord’s brother.”