Did it really happen? Or are these narratives a kind of religious Santa Claus story, not meant to be taken literally?
For most of the first 1,700 years of Christian history, the unchallenged answer to each of these inquiries would have been a resounding yes. Human beings lived then in a prescientific world of miracle and magic. The faith story, rooted as it was in the past, wove into its central fabric tales of wonder without either hesitation or embarrassment. But in the last 400 years of Western history, we have experienced an enormous intellectual revolution that has changed dramatically the way we view the world in which we live.
Our world does not admit of heavenly signs that broadcast events on earth, nor do we admit that there is such a thing as a supernatural or miraculous birth. We know that the story of a Santa Claus who travels through the sky is not literal truth, and we have come to suspect that neither is the story of Jesus' birth.
So, modern people face the "Did it really happen?" question about these Christmas stories and answer it with an increasingly clear No! No, these things did not really happen. No, they are not literal. They did not occur in history, and it is time for the leaders of the church to say so openly. The fact is that no reputable biblical theologian today, Catholic or Protestant, is willing to defend the historical accuracy of the details of the biblical birth stories.
That is true of all birth traditions. No one waits outside a delivery room for a great person to be born. People are born with little fanfare outside their immediate families. But when a life becomes critical in the lives of others or in history, then stories develop to indicate that the moment this life was born was a significant moment in the life of the world, and that that moment was marked with presaging signs. That is what the birth stories of Jesus mean.
These stories are the conscious attempts to stretch the boundaries of language so that words could point to a transcendent reality that they normally cannot embrace. They represent first-century attempts to say, "We have met something in this particular life that we do not believe human beings by themselves could ever have produced." In narrative form, the gospel writers were trying to join in Paul's assertion that somehow and in some way "God was in this Christ!" So, they wrote that at the moment of the birth of this life, the whole created order took notice.
The fact that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke were literalized was a tragedy, for that literalizing process also succeeded in distorting, warping, and, in a very real way, destroying both the power and the significance of the narratives. When children cease to take the Santa Claus story literally, they can begin the process of discerning what the symbol of Santa Claus means. He is the personification of the spirit and joy of giving.