The reading today is the reprint of an article I wrote for The Light Magazine earlier this month - it traces through the whole Christmas story.
I’m afraid for Christmas.
I’m afraid lest it simply become familiar, and in its familiarity cease to stun us with wonder. Might it become flat, two-dimensional, and lifeless? Might it become cliché? Has it already?
How tragic for a story that truly rocks our world.
How do we reignite true engagement with this piercing moment of history? How do we cultivate surprise? It seems to me that we need to see these events, as if for the first time, through the eyes of those who were actually there. We forget they were entirely ordinary people who were caught up in the most extraordinary events. What if we tried to stand in their shoes (or sandals), seeing what they saw and hearing what they heard? What might we learn about ourselves, about our God, and about the surprising gift that first appeared in an animal’s feeding trough in Bethlehem?
For instance, the lead-up to the story features two commonplace individuals in first century Israel. Both were visited by an angel, both shocked out of their wits, both told that a child would be born to them – impossibly, unexpectedly. Can you feel the astonishment? The first was an old man named Zechariah – he and his wife, Elizabeth, had tried for years to conceive a child, but all to no avail. The second was a young woman (likely a teenager), named Mary, who was unmarried, chaste, and entirely unlikely to become pregnant. When both received their angelic message (“You will have a child”), both responded with almost identical words (“How can this be?”). But one spoke with skeptical disbelief, and the other with an enquiring heart of full submission. Both – beyond their own deserving – were caught up in the cosmic rescue plan of Almighty God. Both, when they realized it, voiced their praise to God in songs that have inspired ever since. Mary did it almost immediately. Zechariah had to wait nine months till he got his voice back (if you don’t know that part of the story, you can read it in Luke 1).
Such extraordinary happenings set us on the edge of our seats.
And think of the unsuspecting shepherds, tending their sheep as always, in the still of night, in quiet fields outside Bethlehem – expecting nothing. Blithely, we sing about the events they would soon experience (“Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”), as if such things would immediately warm one’s heart. But the shepherds themselves must have quaked in their boots when the skies opened and angels celebrated with harmonies they’d practiced since the beginning of creation.
Oh, the shock. Oh, the joy!
And what about the topsy-turvy paradox encompassed in the message itself delivered to those shepherds. “A Saviour has come, capable of saving all people. He is the long-promised Messiah. Indeed, he is the Lord – the Almighty, King of all creation, of all worlds, of all universes.” Yet this Mighty One will be found wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger. Really?
We fast forward forty days to the Jerusalem Temple, where Mary and Joseph have gone, as the Law required, to present their newborn child to the Lord. An elderly man, Simeon, rushes forward with quivering hands and quavering voice and breathlessly pronounces this little one to be the Sovereign Lord’s age-old rescue plan, bringing salvation to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike. Can it be?
Then months later, foreigners from the East – travelling untold distances, following the insights they’d gleaned from the stars – arrive to seek out the one who has been born King of the Jews, seemingly expecting an epoch shifting event. They find him ensconced in a humble home in Bethlehem, surrounded by nothing of royalty, nothing of power. They worship with kingly gifts, giving homage. But as they journeyed home, they must have wondered: What will this child be? What path will he walk? How will he take such poverty and turn it to power? What difference will this birth make?
And then there were the Teachers of the Law in Jerusalem who knew exactly where such a child would be born. They recited the reference: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah … out of you will come a ruler.” They knew it from the Scriptures, to which they were devoted, to which they gave their attention night and day. Yet they neglected to travel the short distance down the road to see for themselves whether such a wonder had truly occurred. Why were they so near-sighted? Why so uncurious?
Herod, of course, taking no chances, sent his galloping horsemen to slaughter every newborn male child (age two and under), seeking to thwart the ancient prophecy. Meanwhile, those living in Bethlehem encountered, in a single year, two unforgettable nights – the night of the singing voices (when shepherds could not contain their joy) and the night of the thundering hooves (when Herod’s fury could not be held back).
All the way through, the story evokes intrigue and wonder. It asks us how we ourselves would have responded. Would we have been shocked, awestruck, believing, skeptical, indifferent?
But ultimately the story isn’t about us, nor about those first witnesses. It’s about the Child. The one long promised. The one who would crush the serpent’s head, reverse the curse, ransom the lost, bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim freedom, release prisoners, and save his people from their sins. It’s about Jesus.
So, cultivate the wonder. Give in to surprise. Marvel at the marvelous. It’s a stunning story.
Celebrate the Child – who is our Saviour.
Photo by Walter Chávez on Unsplash