On December 25 of every year, Christians around the Western world celebrate the God who took on flesh. Together we anticipate the joy and the glad tidings of the child who unto us was born. But our celebrations often tend to leave Jesus in the manger and to leave our faith hidden somewhere beneath our quietness during the Christmas Eve mass. What difference does Christmas make to us by the time New Years Eve passes by? We tend to believe in a faith-deluding privatization of Jesus rather than embodying the astonishing life-changing message of the Creator taking upon himself blood and body and entering humbly into the world of his created-ones in order to sacrifice himself for our sake.
There’s the fairytale version of Christmas: A quiet baby in a warm manger surrounded by a beautiful young mom and an incredibly gentle adopted father, graced by gentle shepherds and cute, little lambs while a star hovered just overhead. Angels sing sweetly o’er the plain while the earth is placid. We are tempted to live according to this holiday adaptation because it resembles the soothing sweetness of a carnation as opposed to the unpleasant shock of the Incarnation.
Then there’s the reality: A real baby, messy with an umbilical cord and misshapen skull, screaming for warmth in the cold air, held by an unwed teenage mom who has left her family behind to give birth in another town with her boyfriend at her side. Meanwhile, a frightening host of angels startle shepherds, who are saturated in the smell of sheep, with the incredibly strange order to visit this majestic newborn who will receive no welcome to this world except by their lowly presence. In fact, peace on earth seems an impossible concept when the local king, alerted by innocent wise men seeking the king of the Jews, demands the baby’s death. Soldiers descend upon the town and murder every child under the age of two. The baby, his young mother and his adopted father, frantically escape to Egypt, the land where his ancestors happened to have been chained in slavery. Eventually the baby grows up, gifted with unimaginable insight and the power to heal the sick, the blind, and even the dead. Crowds begin flocking to the man and with intense fervor begin clamoring over his claims of heavenly kingship. The local leaders, who become alarmed and antagonistic, increasingly seek confrontation with this man who, in their eyes, grew up as nobody special. And when the man elects not to bow to public pressure to incite a nationalistic revolt against the ruling government, the crowds choose to reject him as their shepherd. Ultimately, they seize him through betrayal, beat him mercilessly, and nail him violently to an instrument of execution… while his young mother watched and wept at his bloody feet.
The Incarnation is about the God who was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. But it is also about the God who was wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb. It is an intense story. Eugene Peterson notes, “This has never been an easy truth for people to swallow… When it comes to the sordid squalor of the raw material involved in being human, God is surely going to keep his distance from that.”1 We tend to gloss over the shock that is so evident in the story of the Incarnation. So fear inducing was the event that the announcements of the angels to Mary, Joseph and the shepherds all contain the phrase, “Don’t be afraid.” So raw and violent was the context of Immanuel’s advent that it was only after the resurrection of Jesus that people were truly able to see that the offer of peace on earth is made possible through the Incarnation. At its crux, the Incarnation is about the terrible beauty of God’s willingness to humble himself, even to point of death on a cross.
Our yearly Christmas celebrations reveal our tendency to trivialize the scandal and intensity of the Incarnation. We are inclined to annually gloss over the pain and sacrifice of the Incarnation, opting instead for a consumerist-faith, selfish in its assumption of undeserved grace, isolated in its exposure towards others, and shallow in its apprehension of the crude carne of Jesus Christ. That the Holy God of the Universe would take on the fragility of flesh in this violent, sinful world exposes the raw determination of God’s heart to go to the most extreme lengths to love his people.
1 Peterson, Eugene H. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005, 59.