It amazes me how the first Christmas snuck up on the world. Of course then, as now, everyone was waiting for a savior to come; everyone believed that God would intervene in human history. They talked about it; prophesied about it; argued, wept and laughed over it.
But for all their talking, arguing and prophesying, no one thought of walking out the back door and looking for God in the stable. What would God be doing sleeping in a manager? Society was in big trouble! Organized religion was failing miserably. Family ties weren’t as stable as they had once been. Rome ruled the world, and those Greek perverts had for centuries been spreading around all sort of immoral ideas! And don’t forget urban crime, and wars breaking out all over the world. At such a time surely God wouldn’t play a dirty trick on us by sneaking into our world and falling asleep like a newborn in something out of which animals eat!
But according to the Christmas story that is exactly what God did, and the world didn’t even notice. How unfair! Or was it?
There were clues enough, but people overlooked them. There was that teenage girl Mary who had been pregnant nearly six months before she finally got married. Anyone with any moral sense whatsoever knows what kind of a girl she is. Are we supposed to believe that God had something to do with that bit of immorality?
There were those shepherds running around at all hours of the night, singing and shouting about having seen angels and heavenly lights out in their fields, but can anyone take such fanatics seriously? And there were those “wise men” from the East--that cult of superstitious astrologers who marched into town talking about “a newborn king.” One can never make heads-nor-tails of what those Orientals are talking about, and are we really suppose to believe their primitive hocus-pocus?
That’s how people were in Biblical times, and any resemblance between them and us is purely historical and not a coincidence.
I wonder about the main characters in the Christmas story: did they really understand what was going on at the time, or were they as confused and unsure as I might have been were I in their place? Did Mary understand how fully she was accepting God when she accepted an unplanned pregnancy that was sure to cause talk among the neighbors and rifts in her family? Was Joseph aware that he was accepting God when he decided to take Mary as his wife and raise as his own son a child he knew was not biologically his own? Did Herod--builder of his people’s greatest temple--realize that he was attempting to murder God when he ordered the slaying of the innocents?
These are questions I ask myself whenever I read or hear the Christmas story, and these questions are what make the holiday meaningful. I wonder if I see “something of God” in the unwed pregnant teen-age girls in our society, and I wonder what my response to them should be. I wonder about fanatics--our latter-day shepherds who come running to us during the night, singing and shouting about angels appearing in their fields. I think about those people of different cultures, nationalities and religions whose strange beliefs and traditions seem outdated, ridiculous, even uncivilized and barbaric--and yet they, like so many of us, seem to be searching for a new star in the heavens. I think about our modern Herods--those political and religious leaders who would, at all costs, protect the status quo from any “newborn kings” who might pop up. And I think of all the humans who will be born into our world this Christmas and put to sleep in mangers or trash cans because we who have so much can’t seem to find room in our inns; and I wonder if we, for all of our singing of carols and reading of scriptures, are overlooking the Divine being born again and again into our world.
When all is said and done, I find myself contemplating that very first Christmas Eve. I imagine that I am sitting in the dark stable, trying to keep warm between the animals as together we gaze upon what appears to be just another baby sleeping in the manger. Part of me is filled with wonder at the way God sneaks into our world in completely unexpected, sometime even ridiculous ways; it’s as if God had changed the labels around so that no one can really tell who is human and who is divine. Part of me is grateful that I was born nearly 2,000 years after Jesus; grateful that the events of his birth have been handed down to me in the form of a miraculous story with clear-cut heroes and villains; grateful that the story has been enshrined in music, art and tradition. It’s much easier to see God in a manger when the manger has been bought at Wal-mart and is illuminated by the electric lights of an artificial Christmas tree.