- Brad Nelson
The story of Jesus’ birth is so familiar, many of us—Christian or not—can practically finish the sentences as the story is read aloud. Emperor Augustus declares a census. The whole world travels to their hometowns. Quirinius is governor. Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the town of David. There’s no room at the inn. There are the shepherds in the field. The angelic choir. The infant king lies quietly in a manger swaddled in bands of cloth. Mary and Joseph look on, and somewhere nearby a goat is eating hay. It all sounds so pleasant and peaceful.
I wonder, was it meant to?
Leonardo Da Vinci’s annunciation depicts the angel Gabriel bowed before a richly dressed Mary surrounded by a beautiful estate. Think of the nativity scenes you’ve seen as decorations. The moment history has been waiting for as home decor! Or think of the creche you pass on your way home from work each evening. The infant king surrounded by parents, animals, and wise men, and all of this visible because of the beautiful up-lighting. Our vision of the Christmas story is shaped more by sentiment and “all is calm and all is bright” than anything else.
Is it pleasant that the God of the universe came among us as an infant? Is it pleasant that in all the darkness and horror of our world, God is pleased to come among us in such ordinary and quiet ways? Is it pleasant that the Lord is pleased to clothe power in vulnerability? Is it pleasant to think God’s power is made manifest in us through our own vulnerability? Is it pleasant to think this baby was born for a cross, and we are beckoned to follow?
Do not presume to be familiar with this story. Let us not domesticate it and assign it to the realm of fairy tales more fitting for children to act out each year.
Instead, follow Mary’s lead. Ponder this. Treasure it and ponder it in your heart. Turn it over and over in your mind. I don’t think Mary was simply savoring the goodness of God’s favor. Instead, I think she was acutely aware of the explosive and dangerous nature of this birth.
More likely, the annunciation and the birth were drab and largely unnoticeable, except to those involved. Even to them, it was a mixture of joy, fear, and holy unknowing. The Lord of heaven and earth was finally here. A baby. How would this child become the king? How would he turn the hearts of people to himself? How would he survive the Caesars and the Herods and, worst of all, the religious people? When you strip away the sentimentalism, it seems awfully underwhelming to think all the longing of human history for God to come and annihilate evil and restore justice and peace had happened in this quiet birth.
Can we become unfamiliar with this story long enough to remember God’s habit of breaking into reality in the quiet, unassuming, ordinariness of life? Can we, like Mary, awaken to the fact that, “God is in this place, and I, I did not know it?” This Christ—whom we can’t pin down—is born among us daily in quiet, unassuming, redemptive ways. The Christmas story is an invitation to ponder, to awaken—and like Mary—to respond, “Here I am, Lord. May it be to me according to your word.” Awaken. This baby has changed everything.