Scripture Reference: Luke 2:21-35
Much of the Christmas Story I Never See in Greeting Cards.
The few Christmas cards that are religious tend to be foil-stamped icons showing Elizabethan-looking characters with halos, like the one of Mary receiving word of her impending pregnancy with all the surprise and terror of someone opening their electric bill.
I’ve never seen a card of Zechariah, father of John the B, being struck mute by the angel for his lack of faith.
Cards about the miraculous conception in Elizabeth of John the B don’t seem to sell well.
I’ve never seen a card depicting Herod’s slaughter of the newborns in Bethlehem.
And even when we do see the manger, it is professionally lighted.
If we were tell more of the Christmas story on greeting cards, it could help us visualize the rest of what it means for the Messiah to be born when and where he did. Imagine a card showing a red-faced Mary (with her baby-bump) listening to yet another member of her village saying, “Do really expect us to believe that angel story of yours?”
We may sanitize our greeting cards, but there is no sanitizing the records of Matt and Luke. When the angel told Mary about her impending pregnancy she responded as typically and humanly as you would. “But I’m a virgin!” Every year there are millions of teenage girls pregnant out of wedlock. We’re so used to it we wonder what the fuss is anymore. But for Mary, in her tightly knit Jewish community in the first century, few things could have been more scandalous. The law considered a betrothed woman who became pregnant by an adulteress subject to legal punishment. Put that on a greeting card.
Matthew tells of Joseph agreeing to divorce Mary privately rather than press charges, until an angel shows up to correct his perception of betrayal. Luke tells of Mary hurrying off to the only other person who could possibly understand her predicament—her relative Elizabeth, miraculously pregnant in her old age after yet another angelic announcement. Elizabeth believes Mary and they share their joy. Yet months later, while everyone is rejoicing with Elizabeth for her new son, Joseph brings Mary to Bethlehem for the census tax, but perhaps also to have this unplanned baby born quietly out of town.
How many times did Mary, seeking some courage, run over in her mind the angel’s promise? How many times did Joseph second-guess his own experience with God as he felt his hot shame at the expanding belly of his fiancée? These were certainly not Hallmark moments.
In the gospels we also meet Simeon, who seems to truly understand what God was doing in mysteriously sending his Son. I have a Christmas card idea. Lets show Simeon holding the infant Messiah in his arms, with a sad look at Mary. Inside the card we’ll write the words Simeon sang:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,
and to be a miracle that will be reviled.
And Mary, a sword shall stab your soul as well.”
Merry Christmas from the Smiths.
So what do the sordid and complicated events of Mary, Joseph and others cause me to ask myself? It is this: If Jesus came to reveal God to us, then what do I learn about God from that first Christmas that I don’t find the greeting card industry inclined to tell me? I can think of many, but the one I want to share is this:
In Christ, God comes near enough to be terribly inconvenient to those who see him. And isn’t that intimate intrusion exactly what we need to recognize him, submit to him, and worship him? (It isn’t as if we were going out of our way to find him.)
J. B. Phillips helps us understand this point of view and helps me escape my earthbound viewpoint. In his reimagining of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained he shows us incarnation from an angelic perspective:
A senior angel is showing a very young angel around the splendors of the universe. They view whirling galaxies and blazing suns, and then flit across the infinite distances of space until at last they enter one particular galaxy of 500 billion stars. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.
"I want you to watch that one particularly" said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
"Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," said the little angel. "What's special about that one?"
He listened in stunned disbelief as the senior angel told him that this planet, small and insignificant and not overly clean, was the renowned Visited Planet.
The little angel's face wrinkled in disgust. "Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince . . . went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that? Do you mean to tell me that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?"
"I do, and I don't think He would like you to call them `creeping, crawling creatures' in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him."
The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.
And it is almost beyond my comprehension too. And yet I accept that this is why we have Christmas. I believe this touchstone of God’s revelation. God came sneaking quietly down the back stairs as a humble baby to turn the universe inside out, very inconveniently, I might add, to himself.
He did this so that we would see God come near;
so we can get close to him;
so that we would see that he loves us like no other.
So we can worship Him. Alleluia.