The light is most luminescent in all its bright glory when it is very dark. Oh how we appreciate a light when we are at our darkest moments. Though sometimes portrayed in a very quaint fashion, the nativity story in the gospels of Luke and Matthew are quite morbid. They are couched within the expectancy of salvation from evil forces not lest the tyrannical Romans. Christmas is hopeful but the hope comes like it does today; it comes through tears and pain in a world that does not recognize the light. We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. Make no mistake about it, the coming of the Messiah caused a visceral moan from God’s good earth. A redemptive plan decided before time even began was spiraling through the space-time continuum and coming to its climax as a young Jewish girl pushed her bundle of joy into the world. It is a shadowy moment in history but also the apex of the glory of God. I hope that this blog and its follow-up will cause you to appreciate the beauty and horror of advent even more.
1-The genealogies do not provide a wonderful sketch of righteous women: Tamar (Incest in Gen. 38:27-30), Rahab (Prostitute in Jos. 2), Ruth (“Gentile dog” or Moabite in Deut. 23:3), Uriah’s wife (Adultery in 2 Sam. 12), and Mary (Illegitimate birth in John 8:41). From the very opening of the Gospel, we have some questions and concerns. The goal of the genealogies is to prove that Jesus is from the line of David and Abraham thus fulfilling both the Old Testament covenants (Davidic and Abrahamic). Most of these lineages would not include women, especially not sketchy women. The women aren’t the only sinners though. The whole genealogy is a testament to the fallenness of man and the goodness of God. It is a history of sin and a covenant-keeping God.
2-Babies are born to live. Paul affirmed this in Aeropagus when he said that God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). Isaiah said the same thing “the Lord who spread out the earth with all that springs from it…gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it” (Isa. 42:5). The Christ-child was different. Jesus was born to die (Gal. 4:4; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rom. 3:25; John 6:38). Jesus’ vocation was to bring Israel’s history to its ultimacy by dying in their place as the suffering servant. James Montgomery Boice describes in vivid terms the reality of Jesus’ birth:
Here is a side to the Christmas story that isn’t often told: Those soft little hands, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, were made so that nails might be driven through them. Those baby feet, pink and unable to walk, would one day walk up a dusty hill to be nailed to a cross. That sweet infant’s head with sparkling eyes and eager mouth was formed so that someday men might force a crown of thorns onto it. That tender body, warm and soft, wrapped in swaddling clothes, would one day be ripped open by a spear. Jesus came to die.
3-“…The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John 3:8) Christmas was the beginning of war. We find in the gospel stories a man who was constantly attacked and tempted by the forces of evil. Satan tempted Christ personally in the desert (Matt 4), Jesus was almost killed by being thrown off a cliff (Luke 4:29), even Peter was almost used by Satan to stop Jesus from dying (Mark 8:32-33), and many other examples can be given. From the protoevangelium to Yahweh’s cosmic battle with the Leviathan, Christmas is the beginnings of a new assault on the kingdom of God. One that has gone on since the beginning.
4-Herod murdered many babies to try and circumvent the beginning of the end of his reign (Matt. 2:16-18). Herod knew that the Messiah was to overthrow the oppresive regime and rule and reign as a king in Jerusalem. That meant that his inglorious rule was to come to an end. To prevent such matters, he murdered the babies of Bethlehem. This type of rogue brutality was common for Herod who was known for his temper. He killed both his favorite wife and three of his sons. He also had one of his mother-in-laws killed as well as some cousins and uncles. This is why Caesar Augustus once remarked that “It is better to be Herod’s hog than his own son.” You had a better chance of living if you were bacon as opposed to family. He drowned a high priest and he burnt alive forty Jewish people who destroyed a golden eagle. The coming of the Messiah resulted in the deaths of many innocent babies. It was a slaughter and it happened on advent.
5-The religious leaders sold their Messiah up the river almost immediately out of fear from Herod’s wrath (Matt. 2:3-6). You would think that the religious people who knew what the Messiah was supposed to do would protect the child until the appointed time when the political forces that oppressed them would be thwarted and destroyed. That is not what we find. He came to his own and his own did not receive him. The religious leaders answer the location of where the Messiah was as if it was merely a question on Jeopardy. The story highlights Jesus’ rejection by his people (Matt. 2:3-6). This would only intensify as Jesus’ ministry came to fruition. N.T. Wright sums up the issues the Jewish people had with Jesus. He says:
Jesus was claiming to be speaking for Israel’s God, her scriptures, and her true vocation. Israel was trusting in her ancestral religious symbols; Jesus was claiming to speak for the reality to which those symbols pointed, and to show that, by her concentration on them, Israel had turned inwards upon herself and was being not only disobedient, but dangerously disobedient, to her god’s vision for her, his vocation that she should be the light of the world. Jesus’ contemporaries, however, could not but regard someone doing and saying these things as a deceiver. His agenda clashed at every point with theirs. In symbol, as in praxis and story, his way of being Israel, his way of loyalty to Israel’s god, was radically different from theirs.
The first Christmas with the coming of the King of David was not met with the religious people’s excitement and expectation. Thomas Merton was right to remark that “There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.” Christmas is dark and it is dangerous. There’s more to come.