The event shines across the centuries like a beacon. In a Bethlehem stable, a child was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger. But the rude circumstances could not conceal an extraordinary birth. Angels filled the sky, praising God and proclaiming peace on earth. Amazed shepherds came to honor the babe. Wise men from the East, guided by a miraculous star, arrived to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

To Christians—and perhaps to a good many others at this time of year —the familiar details seem etched on the heart. Yet they have been questioned...

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