We have heard the story so many times that we have grown used to it. The story of Jesus’ birth has become cozy legend and plastic myth. To counter the transplanting of the manger of the 1st century cow barn to the 21st century “live nativity,” let us try to hear the story as if for the first time.
Let’s try to imagine the situation.Israelis in exile. They are estranged in what was once their Promised Land. The winds that blow through the dusty streets whisper echoes of the Psalmist: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
The signs of exile are all around. The Jews pay taxes to their king, Herod, and he builds a wannabe temple that is void of the “shekinah” glory. There is the House of God, but not God’s presence. The furniture is in place, but no one is home. The building is in business, but the Proprietor doesn’t claim ownership. The priests do their service, but their noisy motions are muted by God’s deafening silence. This is the covenant people of God, but God is strangely absent from their midst.
The greatest sign of exile was the Roman soldiers patrolling the streets and the Roman crosses mocking any hope for change of power. How can the elected people of God be ruled and oppressed by a heathen nation? How can the chosen nation retain identity and hope when the triumph of the pagans meant the defeat of the God of Israel?
We hear of a young Jewish woman and man forced to traverse the country. Because of a strange pre-marital pregnancy, this young couple is at risk of excommunication from their communities and families. Hardly reaching the age of citizenship, they are called for the census. What is the purpose of the census? What is the purpose of the dangerous journey during the delicate period of pregnancy? Taxation. The Jews were being numbered so that they could be exploited. They were being counted for their tribute.Israelis in exile in her own country.
But more agonizing than the mock ruling of Jewish despots and more excruciating than the persecution of a foreign people is the fact that God is not speaking. It would all be bearable if there were purpose. It would all be supportable if God were near. But He wasn’t. It was a situation of violence, fear, confusion and hopelessness.
The status ofIsraelis reflected in the lives of the two young Jews, Joseph and Mary. They are poor, tired, dirty, and cold. As if being forced away from their home as conquered vassals was not degrading and dehumanizing enough, they are also denied tenancy. The vacancy in theTempleis transposed to “no vacancy” inBethlehem, not even a place for an expecting mother. There is no refuge, no place for rest and no one hospitable. They must have felt abandoned with the miracle Child in the womb. They must have felt alone, insecure, and scared. In a soiled barn and amidst malodorous animals, the cold wind whispered: where are you God? From within the silence that amplifies the dirty surroundings of desperation, God speaks His Word.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His “shekinah” glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John1:14).
Not in the temple, but in a cowshed, the glory of God comes. Not from the priestly podiums, but at the edge of the splintery manger, God’s Word addresses Himself to us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). But the Word is not past tense. It speaks ever present and ever new.
This isn’t word as symbol, like letters that symbolize sounds. This is Word as language: God is communicating Himself and is inviting humanity to speak with Him. This is not monolog: God speaks and we listen, or, inversely, we speak and God listens; this is dialog: God wants to interact with Him, speaking His language.
The Word is the language of God. “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (1:18). Jesus is the exegesis of the Father. This language sounds foreign, but familiar. It is foreign in that we don’t understand it. We are unsure that we have heard it. Yet, it is familiar in that it rings true in the depths of our beings, as if it has been speaking to us from the inception of our existence. “All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (1:3).
We come clumsily and inarticulate to the conversation, but we are lead by our “interior teacher” (as Augustine refers to Christ’s indwelling us in the Word). The Word is implanted in our hearts (James1:21).
Let us not let the abstractness remove ourselves from the reality of the story; we must remember that the Word is spoken in the midst of fear, pain, disappointment and insecurity. The Word is spoken in sleepy silence and baby cries. Wrapped in poverty and fragility, God discloses Himself.
Let us resist our tendency to refuse the Word because it is not adult and authoritative. Let us resist affirming that the baby represents Jesus’ humanity, stripped of His godliness. Let us resist affirming that this is Self-condescension, as if God just needed to come down and fulfill a pre-established set of criteria in order to save us. No, this is the Word “who although He existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied Himself…” (Philippians 2:6, 7). The Word is God – the Word spoken through the delicate, dependent baby.
“It has been traditional to see this Self-humbling as God in some way hiding or suspending or adding to or relinquishing his divinity in order to become man. But what if he was in Jesus, actually uncovering his divinity? Does the baby of Bethlehem not reveal God rather than obscure him? Is God’s nature not seen in the powerlessness (to human estimation) of the baby?”
The divinity of God is not hidden in the child; rather the baby is the revelation of God. This is the power of the baby. Isaiah prophesied with astonishing precision: “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.” The Son is not born but begotten. The Son is given; the child is born. In a messianic annunciation, Isaiah describes the coming of the Christ Child.
And the wolf will dwell with the lamb… and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little boy will lead them. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6, 8-9).
The child is the metaphor of hope: hope for new beginnings, for renewal, and for the acceptance of the Reign of God.
This is where the Christ Child touches the street child. Since God was incarnate as a Child, every child has become a metaphor of hope. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me…” (Mark9:37). Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is the spontaneous impression that the image of the Child in the manger awakens in us (Jurgen Moltmann). As a Baby in a barn the Word speaks to us, calls to us, and invites us.
The Word made flesh becomes Good News. “…there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over the flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the shekinah glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12). The Word is announced. The audience is shepherds – not nobles, not learned, not religious, but shepherds – those in solidarity with smelly animals and dirty beds. The Good News is born; the great joy is the Christ Child. The Word is heard and the shepherds entered the dialog of God: “the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen…” (2:20). The sign is a Child, wrapped in a diaper, and lying in a manger. This should baffle us. This should make us speechless. The sign is not the angel, not the proclamation, but the Baby and His poverty.
Let us now return to our 21st century lives. Yet let us find ourselves in the Story. In our estrangement from the world, from our families, from all that offers security; in exile, Diaspora and wilderness; in the oppression, confusion, violence and depression; in the loneliness, rejection, fear and disappointment; in the hopelessness, powerlessness and exploitation; in our dirty, cold corner of the world; in God-forsakenness, we find the precise and necessary conditions for God’s coming. The silence becomes Word; the “no room” becomes presence; the loathsome becomes great joy.
And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond slave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him. He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed. He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his decedents forever’ (Luke 1:46-55).
In the Child, in the Word, God invites us to intimate communication, to secret sharing, and to unceasing prayer.