Wondering About Nativity

Christmas always seems to bring the church into a strange intersection with culture. The Euro-centric celebration of Christmas affirms gift-giving, family gatherings, and general warm feelings. These feelings might be epitomized in holiday decorations, favorite indulgent foods, or the simple embrace of family reunited.

The biblical story of Christmas, or the Nativity, offers perhaps something more challenging to wonder about. Euro-centric Christmas comes like a locomotive that departs the station earlier and earlier each year. It wears the trappings of the Nativity story but has very little in common with it. This does not negate the life-affirming values of the Euro-centric Christmas. Perhaps there are some wonderings we can hold during this time when culture and church intersect. We might even be able to avoid a collision.

The biblical story of the Nativity is first and foremost an act of subversion. The “actual” birth of Jesus is recorded in only two of the four gospels. Both Matthew and Luke record this cosmic event somewhat in passing. It is only a short phrase in Matthew 2:1 and in similar fashion in Luke 2:7. There is considerable material in each story leading up to and away from the actual birth itself. The event itself happens in a small town and with no notice whatsoever of the religious or political leaders of the day. God’s moment of becoming human flesh is a quiet whisper in the narratives of Matthew and Luke. While angels and shepherds celebrate the birth, there is hardly a notice among the powers of the world. I wonder what it means for God’s cosmic and mighty act of salvation to make its advent like this. Is this how evil and injustice are toppled?

The biblical story of the Nativity is one of defiance. According to Luke, the very first event to set the stage for the birth of Jesus begins with a revelation to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah. He was dismissive of the message that he and his wife would conceive a son due to their old age. Mary received the announcement of Jesus’ coming while she was not even married. Joseph, Jesus’ would-be father, tried to disentangle himself from this engagement to Mary. Mary gives birth in a strange town with no room in the Hilton. Herod tries to murder the young child. The list goes on and on. No matter how some might try to extinguish this light, it simply defies all odds. Even at Jesus’ death when he has the attention of civic and religious leaders, the light of Christ is defiant. I wonder what it means for Jesus to persist in the face of every obstacle. Is this how headwinds and resistance are faced?

The biblical story of the Nativity is one that penetrates. In Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth and the events surrounding it, we read of how Mary “pondered these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) Whether it be Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, or shepherds, the coming of Jesus as this infant, both prior to his birth and after it, provoke a deep sense of inner transformation. When Jesus is presented in the temple eight days following his birth, both Anna and Simeon give voice to the penetrating power of God’s act to change the heart. Zechariah is transformed. Joseph is transformed. Mary epitomizes and models Christian faith in her words, “Behold, the Lord’s bond-servant; may it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) In this sense, Mary is the first Christian believer! Jesus has yet to speak a word, tell a parable, heal anyone, or do much of anything. I wonder what it means for God’s grace to penetrate so deeply into human hearts. Is this how humanity is changed from the inside out?

So much of what the Euro-centric Christmas conjures is lovely but fleeting. People broadly affirm the good-tidings of this time of year. But without the subversive, defiant, and penetrating gospel of God in Jesus Christ we are bereft of true hope. I wonder what it means to move away from simply contributing to the normative Christmas but rather toward this gospel of the Nativity. One will endure. The other may be just a memory by January.


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