December 1, 2012
I’ve never been impressed by the “little town of Bethlehem”. It’s now difficult to reach, through the security fence erected by Israel, and the town square, dominated by the Church of the Nativity, is a rather bleak place, populated by eager sellers trying to entice tourists to buy their souvenirs or postcards, and beggars seeking for alms. The city has become a kind of living symbol of the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, and the once sizeable Christian population has largely departed the town. The church itself is crowded, dark and cold, with lines of tourists shuffling towards the supposed site where the baby Jesus was born. Going down the narrow steps to the grotto itself, one is confronted with icons, aromas and statues that feel more gaudy than godly. I have always been glad to move out of the spot, rather than being moved to worship by it. Fortunately a few steps away, there is another church where it is possible to talk and sing about the astonishing events that occurred centuries ago. But there is nothing very heavenly feeling about Bethlehem.
In the first century as well, there was little that was very appealing about Bethlehem. It had become a second-rate little town on the fringes of Jerusalem, and while David had been born there, Jerusalem was the city of David. Bethlehem was a “used to be” place. And a few months after Jesus’ birth, it would become the scene of a terrible atrocity, when an evil and maniacal king Herod ordered the execution of an untold number of infant boys because he was threatened by the credentials to his throne of a boy in diapers.
Yet that little uninviting town was the birthplace of Messiah, chosen by God centuries before. It was there the heavenly and the human intersected. The humanity is all too clear: a young peasant couple, a child miraculously conceived prior to marriage, despised shepherds and a lonely birth in a stable, perhaps a cave, with a stone feeding trough was a cradle, a birthplace devoid of supportive and caring friends and family. But heaven invaded with a chorus of angels, and the unseen reality that this child was none less than Immanuel, God with us. As Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:16, “Beyond all question the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh.” The “he” in question was identified in the previous verse as “the living God.” And here we come to the central truth and mystery of Christmas: the living God came to live among us as an apparently ordinary man, the product of a completely natural birth. He did not simply appear in human disguise as a man; he was fully and truly human so that, as a man, he could represent us before God our Judge as our Mediator, Substitute and Savior. Can any contrast be greater: a weak, defenseless baby crying in a cradle and the eternal all-powerful God worshiped by the hosts of heaven? Only that same person grown to manhood hanging naked on a cross as people mock and curse him, and by that act conquering sin, Satan and death. The mystery is great, but apparently irreconcilable contrasts are embodied in the person of our Savior, and so, like the wise men of old, we bow in worship, faith and wonder.
I recently read the description of Christmas as “the most important consumption festival in the United States, a study in contrasts, a celebration of God and a deification of Mammon.” Our challenge is to turn it into a celebration festival as we focus on the mystery of God become man.