It is a good and joyful thing to no longer live in fear.
For freedom from fear and in response to this great joy, we give you thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. Amen.
Why does the story of how God was conceived and born matter at all? I’m asking this question both within the Christian vacuum and in the wider culture at large. Does remembering the birth of Christ impact the practice of Christianity? What do we mean when we talk about Jesus? One day Jesus isn’t part of human history and the next day, culture is unable to be defined by any means that doesn’t include Jesus. For this we must look to our old friend “context”.
Stories of divine dalliances with humans and demigods were the bread and butter of Greek and Roman religious practice. Gods impregnated young girls all the time through any number of means. Children were born. This wasn’t scandalous or earth shattering. It was different, however, that it would happen among the Jews. And despite his humble and relatively anonymous origins, the child would be described in the same language and manner as the Emperor of Rome, who everyone already accepted was the son of God. With Jesus’ birth, there came a notion that someone had to be wrong. Gods, however many there might be, did not coexist in some eternal cosmic plane. The exclusive religious claims made by and for Caesar were made on his behalf and for his descendants alone. Caesar Augustus was the Savior of the World, the Son of God, Light from Light, and True God from True God. There could not be two. Someone had to be wrong.
However, if you’ve lived in a world where you been prepared to accept one person as the Son of God (and that person turns out to be a privileged rich guy in Rome who also leads a large army) and now there’s an alternative Son of God and Savior of the World to consider, the idea doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary? The “Good News” while startling and amazing in presentation, isn’t that far out the religious mainstream; as far as language goes. The concept of a person with divine inspired names and titles who saves humanity has been floating around the ether for some time now. It’s part of the “context” of how we think about religion and religious people. Jesus’ birth matters, not because of what the angels say or even how they say it. There’s nothing amazing about the content of their message. What makes this event remarkable is the location.
It’s like giving books to a group of people without teaching them how to read. The message shared is shared in an unlikely place among people who seem least likely to appreciate the impact or context. It will be lost on the shepherds, sky watchers, and Bethlehem’s other night owls. Or so it would seem. Jesus’ birth matters because it is so out of place. Things that are out of place stand out for all the wrong reasons. The religious language of Jesus’ birth may have been contextual but it couldn’t have been more out of place. Sons of God don’t pop up from desert lands on the cross roads between east and west. Square pegs don’t fit into round holes. Announcements of this sort, however contextual and appropriate to the religious scene, draw negative attention when their spoken from the wrong place. Can’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t are the words which most easily come to mind. The birth of Jesus is important because it runs against the religious grain, while using that very grain as a way to destroy the grain of the tree from which it grew. That tree, the Roman religious tree, had roots everywhere. Within four hundred years of Jesus’ birth, there would come a day when no one alive would remember what it was like to worship Apollo, make offerings to Jupiter, or deify an Emperor or his children. That change would happen overnight. The way lives had been lived for hundreds upon hundreds of years would come to an end. It was believed to be a physical impossibility because of Rome’s financial, military, social, cultural, and political might. A day came when no one remembered the rituals of the past. One event changed centuries of “how things used to be done” living. This is why Jesus’ birth matters.
Whether or not you choose to accept it, we are comfortable with how things are currently done. We are well pleased with our version of the status quo. Like our ancient Roman ancestors and those who watched the sky that first Christmas night, we believe it’s going to go on like this forever. Nothing is ever going to change. The ground is solid under our feet. A day will never come when people will not remember how it used to be. Like them, we are wrong. Jesus’ birth is important because it reminds us of how wrong we are.
What are we wrong about? I think we take the essence of Christmas for granted. The incarnation, a big word meaning God becoming human, gets lost among the songs, chants, and decorations. We’re on autopilot and we forget. Jesus is not like Caesar. Jesus is not a person who made himself God. Our assertion is simple: Jesus is God. This aspect of his identity, arriving among our sorry lot as God, defines Christmas. When we miss this point, there’s no point in calling this a religious holiday or bothering to involve churches. Refer to the season as the Winter Solstice Month or Gift Giving Month. But really, there’s no need to include Jesus.
Jesus’ birth matters because it helps us figure out how to make things more right than the present demands. If we’re wrong, this event gives us a framework, an idea, and a clue to what makes might lead us toward taking less for granted. Jesus’ birth helps us see the bigger picture. The words and the songs need to come off the page and form an image; and by that I don’t mean the image you think you know. By this, I mean an image that leads us from here to somewhere else; an image that connects and gives meaning to this event and the wider world.
Jesus’ birth isn’t the end of the map, contrary to the Wise Men’s protestations. Jesus’ birth marks a starting point, not a place to admit our exhaustion with decorating and entertaining. Herod is coming and genocide is on his mind. He means to kill this child, his family, and all like him. Jesus’ birth is important because it points a way toward hope through the death round the corner. If I want anything for Christmas, I want to know where I can find hope amid the real, honest to God, living and breathing, bent on genocide King Herods still lurking about our world. I find that hope in celebrating the birth of Jesus.