As a history buff, I'm well aware of the
horrible and disturbing things people have done in the name of
religion--including and in particular the name of my favorite Christmas baby.
History provides a great case against the belief that people are
basically good and badness is an anomaly. Still, every year when I read
the Christmas story in Luke 1-2, the part that amazes me is how God chose to come to earth.
mean, come on, the God of the Universe. Creator of all things.
Divine, holy, righteous, perfect, omniscient and all-powerful. If it
were me, I'd have gone with a more comfortable route--perhaps descending
from the clouds and immediately reclining on the nearest jewel-encrusted
throne. My entrance would've been flashy--with an entourage of
heavenly host and lots of human genuflecting in my direction. I probably would've landed smack on TOP of King Herod's palace.
God chooses a young teenager from a podunk farm town to carry His son
to term. He antes up a step-dad who is a carpenter by trade, the
original Joe Six-Pack.
Grand entrance? Before going into labor,
Mary schleps to Bethlehem for some stupid government census (and if she
hadn't have gotten knocked up by the Holy Spirit, she could've stayed
home, but because of her condition and saving social face she has to
accompany her intended to his ancestral home). The town is mobbed with
people obeying Cesar's command and Joseph gets turned away--no place to
stay. (Remember, this is Joseph's ancestral home--were the relatives
too shocked by his pregnant teenaged fiancee to let them sleep in the
back room? I always wonder...)
But! There's a barn, says the guy running the local brothel (an "inn" in Biblical times is NOT the modern-day equivalent of a Best Western). Go out back and take that empty stall. Luke doesn't tell us, but I bet the guy charged Joseph anyway--that's human nature, isn't it?
Mary is pushing and straining to get the Lord of the Universe through
her birth canal, angels are gearing up overhead. Angels must look like
something humans cannot fathom--I believe this because every time they show up in the Bible, the first thing
they always have to tell people is Don't be afraid. Jesus comes forth--Joseph wipes his brow with relief and Mary leans back exhausted and sweaty against a scratchy pile of straw.
And a heavenly host descends.
my absolute favorite part of the story: the angels don't show up in
Herod's throne room or scare the crap out of Cesar Augustus while he's feasting. They don't announce the birth of the Lord of the
Universe to rich people or powerful people, temple scholars or the High
Priest. Nope, they present the big birth announcement to shepherds,
working in the fields that night. All of God's glorious bragging about
the birth of His only son is sung out to a bunch of guys working third
shift on the outskirts of town.
We know from reading
on that later, when the Magi visit, King Herod goes mad with jealousy when he hears of prophecy fulfilled
and a bunch of baby boys under the age of 3 get whacked. Incidentally, when the Magi visit, King Herod calls in the temple brain pool who agree that yes, Bethlehem is where the King of the World would be born, but they don't follow the Magi to visit, either. Heck, they don't even send along an apprentice scribe to report back what the Magi end up finding. I suspect the truth was and still is that
rich and powerful people would've felt threatened or defensive by God's
coming. I argue that pride's the deadliest sin, the biggest barrier between man and God.
But ordinary folk, farmhands in the hillside of
Bethlehem react quite differently. They immediately rush to the barn
behind the brothel and find Jesus--I like to imagine their appearance.
Quietly and awkwardly they enter the stall and inquire--was a baby just born? A boy? Is it the Christ?
Mary holds out the bundle of red-faced infant wrapped in rags, Joe
Six-Pack steps aside and lets them take turns holding the baby, the third shift shepherds
marveling in turn as we all do at a newborn's tiny perfection.
they leave, they head straight downtown to tell everyone they could
find of what they saw and heard. The reaction on the streets was
In that first Christmas, God reveals himself to ordinary people, folks
literally on the fringe of society. The guys alone in the fields watching animals on the outskirts of town. The shepherds weren't important by society's standards, but they welcomed the announcement with enthusiasm. The scholars, the pious leaders, the
rich and powerful were too hampered by pride or greed to acknowledge His
gift. God knows who needs His promise and Jesus was born in a cold, dark cave for exactly
those people--people with nothing to offer, nothing to lose. Christmas
is about grace, humility and goodwill, love--the hard kind of love to folks who
don't return it in kind and usually don't deserve it in the first place.
Religion hasn't remained true to these ideals, but if you read
the Bible's version closely you'll find the truth in the Christmas. Only someone
divine would set aside all their power and glory to save lost souls and
love them no matter what--no working for it, no earning it, no ritual,
no sacrifice--God only wants people to believe and be amazed. Just like the shepherds were.
Joy to the world! First announced by a heavenly host to shepherds watching over their flocks by night. If I was God, I would've worked it a whole lot
differently--and that's what makes the Christmas story awesome.