This is my second post where I list some of the darker elements of the advent story. The goal is not to bring waves of sadness but to make the glory of God shine brighter using the backdrop of human depravity and gloom. I mentioned the genealogies, Jesus being born to die, the cosmic war, Herod’s murder of the Bethlehem babies, and the rejection of the Messiah by the religious elite of the day in the last post. Let’s press on.
6-We need to remember that the Nativity story is one of shame for Mary (Luke 1:26-38; Matt. 1:18-19). Middle-eastern culture was and still is an honor/shame culture (Gen. 34). This type of culture is one where the primary tools used to protect social and ethical mores of society are ostracism and the use of shame/honor. What the wife does directly reflects on the husband. What the children do directly reflects on their parents (a modern example can be seen here). The father has the role of protecting the family name at all costs so as to not bring dishonor amongst his community. This is the backdrop of the nativity story. If Joseph stayed with Mary, it would appear that he was the father despite his own personal piety. This is why Joseph sought to put her away quietly. Finally, after an angel appeared to Joe, he believed making him one of three people on the planet that believed the young Jewish girl (Joseph, Elizabeth, & Zechariah). It seems at least understandable why most people failed to believe Mary. The people of the first century were not idiots despite their existence before the Enlightenment. Babies are made only one way- the old fashioned way of two people fulfilling the creation mandate. But, not this time. It seemed that Mary and Joseph merely burned with lust and gave in which incurred the wrath of the religious milieu of the day. Mary, under the law, deserved death (John 7:53-8:22; Lev. 20:10; Honor killings in the Middle East) which would lead Joseph to protect her until the child was born. The honor/shame culture of the day resulted in Mary’s family putting her out of the house and Joseph taking Mary into his own home (Matt. 1:24-25). This is dark.
7-There was no room for Mary and Joseph to have their child among family. We typically hear that there was no room at the inn which resulted in Mary having the child in a manger out back. But, I think the word for inn likely is not translated correctly. It is best translated as “guest room.” “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room (katalyma) available for them.” The Greek word katalyma is used twice in Mark 14:14 & Luke 22:11. The Lord sends his disciples ahead of him where they are to find a guest room of a house where they may celebrate the Passover. They ask a person to use their room and he graciously agrees (he does so because inhospitality was a grievous sin in their culture). If Luke had wanted to communicate that there was no room for them at the local Bethlehem holiday inn, he would have used the word pandocheion like he does in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:34. But, he does not. What I think is going on is that Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem to find that something has beat them there- their reputation. The family likely wanted to communicate to the couple that what they did and are doing is not appropriate; it is shameful. There’s not room in the main or guest room for people who commit adultery. There was room in the shelter or cave where the animals stayed though. In a way, the family is likely letting the young Mary know that “If you’re going to act like an animal, you’ll be treated like one.” As the young girl winces in pain and cries out because of the travails of childbirth, the family sits in their room worshiping the Lord. The price Mary and Joseph paid was a lot. This is the world the Son of God came into on that night.
8-The nativity songs are full of military language, language the Israelites would recognize as intricately connected to Yahweh’s holy war (Luke 1:46-56; 1:67-80). We need to remember that our God is not a tame lion and he has been battling the forces of darkness since the Serpent led his vice regents astray. Mary’s song, the Magnificant, utilizes language that any Jewish person would have recognized as straight from the Old Testament passages concerning battle: “the Mighty One”-(Psa. 24:8; Mighty One of Jacob Gen. 49:24; Psa. 132”2,5; Isa. 49:26), “with his arm”- (Exo. 6:6; 15:16; Deut. 4:34, 5:15, 7:19, 11:2, 26:8), and “Scattered”-scattering of God’s enemies (Num. 10:35; 2 Sam. 22:15) and the scattering of God’s people under judgment (Psa. 44:11; Isa. 11:12). Even the elderly Zechariah sings about the demise of Israel’s enemies within the Benedictus: “horn of salvation for us”- military might & strength (Psa. 18:2; Psa. 132: 17; 2 Sam. 22:3), “salvation from our enemies”- warrior king bringing deliverance (Psa. 60:11-12; 74:12-13), and vv. 76-79 is an allusion to Isa. 9:2-7. The Messiah was to bring in certain blessings upon the people of Israel. He was to “implement” certain things: Zion would receive its religious and political supremacy that it deserved (Isa. 2:1-4), he was going to gather the scattered exiles home (Mic. 4:6-7), he would faithfully implement God’s law (Isa 11:1-10; Amos 9:11; Micah 5:1-6; Eze. 34:14-18), he would bring abundant material blessings to Israel (Amos. 9:13-14), and he would judge the nations (Isa. 24:21-23; Zech. 14). He was to battle Israel’s foes. The irony of the story of the gospels is that Jesus defeated the Romans and the satanic forces in the world but he does it by letting them defeat him. N.T. Wright notes:
The Gospels thus tell the story of Jesus, and particularly of his death, as the story of how cosmic and global evil, in its suprapersonal as well as personal forms, are met by the sovereign, saving love of Israel’s God, YHWH, the creator of the world. They write intentionally to draw the whole Old Testament narrative to its climax, seeing that narrative precisely as the story of God’s strange and dark solution to the problem of evil from Genesis 3 onwards. What the Gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it. Like the exodus from Egypt, or the return from Babylon, only now with fully cosmic reach, God has rescued his people from the dark powers of chaos. The sea monsters have done their worst, and God has vindicated his people and put creation to rights. And he has done so through the suffering of Israel’s representative, the Messiah. This is what it looks like when YHWH says, as in Exodus 4, “I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to set them free.” This is what it looks like when YHWH says “Behold, my servant.” As Isaiah says later (chapter 59), it was no messenger, no angel, but his own presence that saved them; in all their affliction he was afflicted. God chose the appropriate and necessarily deeply ambiguous route of acting from within his creation, from within his chosen people, to take the full force of evil upon himself and so exhaust it. And the result is that the covenant is renewed; that sins are forgiven; that the long night of sorrow, exile and death is over and the new day has dawned. New creation has begun, the new world in which violence will be overcome and the sea will be no more.
War is always bloody. This blood would be the very lifeflow of the Son of God.
9-As Jesus is presented within the temple, a saintly, elderly gentleman who was waiting for the consolation of Israel exuberantly extols the baby Jesus with a hymn. His words are not as flowerly as “Hark the Herald.” The words of Simeon are very gloomy (Luke 2:22-38). Simeon sings about being ready to die (vv. 29-32) because he has seen the Messiah which is the indication that Yahweh would redeem his people finally from that which opposes them. He then goes on to say that Jesus would be the dividing line where so many would fall. People would go to hell for rejecting him and his message (vv. 34-35). Jesus’ message brings about darkness for many (Rom. 9:2-4; 32-33). We need to remember that the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Peace only exists for those with whom he is pleased. Jesus’ birth was not a hopeful coming for all people. It does not bring hope for Pilate, Herod and any others who oppose him.
10-Simeon closes his hymn by saying that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” Mary would suffer her whole life along with Christ. It is not redemptive suffering but it is suffering nevertheless. Do the gospels give examples of this sword being thrust into the heart of Mary? Yes. We find Mary in John 4 rushing to Jesus when the wedding guests run out of wine. Jesus responds with “woman, what does this have to do with me?” Woman? How about mom? It would seem that Jesus is beginning to separate himself from his mom at the beginning of his ministry. The sword is piercing her. Another time Jesus is in a house with his disciples along with some large crowds of people (Mark 3:31-35). Everyone wants a piece of the healer. His family, Mary and his siblings come to Jesus and someone tells him “Your mother and your brothers are outside seeking you.” Jesus responds by distancing himself from his mom and family. “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” This was again the sword being pushed a litter deeper into her heart.
The deepest pain came at the cross where her son, her beloved son, is dying in front of her. Like it would for any mother, watching her son die broke the heart of Mary. Yet even on the cross, Jesus distances himself from her (John 19:26-27). In the moment you would expect Jesus to look down and encourage his mother with “Mom, it is going to be ok. I am going to die but I will rise. I am providing salvation, even your own. I love you.” He does not. He looks to the beloved John and tells him to take care of Mary because she is now his mother and vice versa. Now Jesus was making sure she would be taken care of but he still distances himself from her. It was love but the love possessed pain also. Why does Jesus treat his mom like this? My guess is that Mary had to understand that she had no special place within God’s economy when it came to salvation. She must believe and repent like all others. She needed need. She would not have a special place as the “queen of heaven” but needed her son more than he needed her as a small infant. The sword pierced her own soul also.
11- The darkest part of the nativity story is the fact that it is the incarnation. Jesus, the King of kings, Treasure of treasures and Lord of lords, came down. The Word became flesh. God became human. The invisible became visible. The untouchable became touchable. Eternal life experienced temporal death. The transcendent one descended and drew near. The unlimited became limited. The infinite became finite. The immutable became mutable. The unbreakable became fragile. Spirit became matter! Eternity entered time! The independent became dependent! The almighty became weak. The loved became hated. The exalted was humbled. Glory was subjected to shame. Fame turned into obscurity. From inexpressible joy to tears of unimaginable grief. From a throne to a cross. From ruler to being ruled. From power to weakness. This is dark.
As Frederick Buechner writes in his book Whistling in the Dark :
Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed—as a matter of cold, hard fact—all its cracked up to be, then eve at best our efforts are misleading. The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.” Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
Let the beauty of the dark yet hopeful nativity story cause you to worship Jesus with your eyes wide open and your heart laid bare before him. He is worthy of it.