If I can be totally honest, I’ve lost all interest in conversations about the merits of Christmas.
My day isn’t darkened in the slightest when my barista wishes me, “Happy holidays.” Personally, I don’t even know if I’m convinced that Christ wants to be kept in Christmas. I frequently wonder if we’ve turned the holiday season into a green and red prison for Jesus, wrapped with a neat bow, pristinely placed under a well-trimmed tree.
“Stay here, Jesus; it’s safer that way.”
When giant, inflatable Santa Clauses and plastic nativities pop up around the neighborhood, I instinctively research the symptoms of seasonal depression.
Before you label me a <insert your favorite Christmas time villain>, I’ll have you know, this year is different.
Last week, my wife and I had lunch with a group of friends. During the course of the meal, someone felt compelled to read the account of Jesus birth found in Luke 2.
“Oh Lord, bear me strength! Here we go!” I thought, bracing myself for the inevitable train of boredom that was sure to flatten me into a slumber.
As I lay back in my chair, like a Grinch laying on his Christmas plunder, something changed. This story, the one I’d become to deathly familiar with, began to show itself to me the way God seems to hide in the eyes of a newborn baby.
Maybe you’ve heard the tale before. Maybe you’ve always been affected by it. Maybe not. Maybe Christmas and the idea of a virgin mother birthing the Son of God sounds like an ancient fairytale.
I don’t know your past with the Bible or Jesus’ birth story, but if it isn’t too much to ask, I want to revisit this story and share my thoughts. As with anything I share, you can feel free to disagree or mock my ideas openly even. My opinions aren’t authority!
In Matthew 2, we read that the birth of Jesus happened in Bethlehem in Judea, while King Herod was still in power. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw His star as it rose, and we have come to worship Him.”
The wise men mentioned in this story are likely from somewhere in Asia. Some say the Middle East; others recognize these men as magi. The term “magi” has its roots in Persia and is often related with Zoroastrianism, believed to be the oldest religion in human history. These magi would have been similar to priests who were familiar with astrology and the significance of stars in relation to divine working.
Priests of another religion had come to worship a Jewish Messiah. Could this be a glaring affirmation that God is up to something entirely new through Jesus?
Traditional Judaism recognizes the Hebrew people as God’s one chosen race. Why then, would these high-ranking religious leaders leave their posts and travel so far to offer gifts to a Jewish King? Could it be that these men discerned the universal gravity of Jesus birth and what it signified for all people of all races, all classes and all religious backgrounds?
King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem.
A king, with the resources of an entire kingdom at his disposal, was disturbed and threatened by a humble Jewish boy. While Herod had worked his entire life to gain the wealth, power and position of a king, he perceived that it all may be at stake with the birth of Jesus.
Jesus has been a threat to the established human power structures from his very birth. I wonder what systems of power I’m a part of this year? In what ways does Jesus threaten to dethrone me?
“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:
“ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:4-12)
As they encountered this little baby boy, likely in a cave kept for farm animals, the magi were filled with wonder. How could there be anything divine, anything meaningful, happening in a cave, in a small town? Isn’t this the subversive nature of the work of God, though?
Decades later, another man who encountered Jesus would write “The message of Christ is foolishness to some, to others it is the very power of God… For God chose things the world considers foolish to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” (1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 1:27-28)
Is this what the wise men encountered that night? Seeing Mary, Joseph and Jesus, abandoned by the outside world, kept company by unclean animals, did they reflect back on their own religious knowledge, their own privilege as holy men? As they reflected, they may have recognized that true life, eternal life, comes only to those who are willing to lay down their power to serve the weak, the poor and the abandoned.
Like teenage mother Mary.
Like confused father Joseph.
Like sleeping baby Jesus.
At this thought, the magi offered their most expensive gifts to the family as a display of gratitude and love for God. Ironically, it would be Jesus who would eventually offer His very life as a gift for men like the magi, to show the generosity of the love of God.
“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’
“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
‘A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.’ ” (Matthew 2:13-18)
Again, think about King Herod, willing to sacrifice the life of every male child in hopes to retain his own power.
Now, think about Jesus, willing to sacrifice His own life for men like Herod to show just how precious life is to God.
Here, then, lies the true defiant nature of Christmas. Not the Christmas most of us know, filled with gifts, lights, inflatables and food. None of these things are inherently wrong. But, all of these things are undercut when we take a moment to reflect on the key ideas presented in this story.
At the heart of this familiar narrative, we find two competing ideas about what it means to be human. One idea says life can be found in status, privilege and power. Work more. Build more. Life is short, so build your name as big as you can while you still have time!
The other says true life belongs to the “have nots.” The only way to truly live, is to freely offer all you have to those who need it most. Because, we all need something.
This year, some of us may find our needs met as we unwrap that oddly shaped box we’ve been eyeing over the past month.
Others among us may find life where we least expect it, like a wise man, giving up his treasure to a king, sleeping on a bed of straw.
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