“It is the Singular Event that tests everyone who encounters it.“
Over the years, I’ve written dozens of Christmas messages. Since my audience is wide-ranging and religiously unidentified, I’ve attempted to think about the Christmas messages of hope, certainty, and what we value and why. And, of course, family.
I’ve even written a short story about the season from an unrelated perspective that has remained popular, Sebastian’s Christmas Walk. And, last year, I wrote (here) of my mid-life surprise when I heard the story of God’s rescue plan for the first time.
But this Holy day, this history-altering day, is so much more than words can express. The Truth is that one could write for a lifetime and never even take a cup of water from the deep ocean that is the Christmas story.
It captivates even the secular world. Despite the commercialism, the in-your-face marketing, and the self-righteous indignation of the “woke and cancel culture” crowd, Christmas endures. The day exists in the human heart. There is a deep, abiding attraction – the pull of Truth – that alerts us subliminally that there is more iron-hard certainty behind the ancient prophecies that even the comforts of modern life can’t overcome.
The reason is that in the center of Christmas, no matter how it’s mangled, manipulated, or even banished – Jesus waits.
Like no other life ever lived, and unlike every king who has ever ruled, Jesus walks through human history still, as He has in every age, welcomed or not.
And 2020, for all of its difficulty, is no different.
The unexamined life is proverbial in every age and generation, of course. But, the unexamined life seems to have become a goal instead of an unintentional destination in the post-world war generations, consumed by the super-sized appeal of wealth and privilege delivered at the speed of an electron. Worse, the trappings of material comfort require a constant, herculean devotion to secure and keep – squeezing out the moments when we can hear anything but ourselves; to consider and contemplate – but, mostly, to love.
Tragically, bleak and joyless lives are everywhere, measured not in money, success, or fame but by addictions, mental health problems, and suicides. They speak to us most loudly in broken and dysfunctional families, loneliness, and detachment.
But, this most assuredly is not the Christmas story.
We know very little about Jesus’ actual birth itself, except Matthew and Luke’s Gospel accounts. It seems to be another case of God telling us only what we need to know, not all we want to know. It is the Singular Event that tests everyone who encounters it.
The sparse details of the journey from Nazareth in the hills of Galilee in the north to Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem don’t even supply a date. We only know the purpose was to comply with a Roman census used to assess taxes where everyone had to travel to “his own town” to register.
Mary was probably a young teenager when she was “pledged” to marry Joseph, a “descendant of David,” as was Mary, hence the journey to Bethlehem. But, “before the two had come together,” an angel informed her that the “Most High will overshadow you” and that she would give birth to a boy and that she was to name him Jesus.
The circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph raised obvious questions and undoubtedly would have been a local scandal. Joseph even considered ending his relationship with Mary when she became pregnant before their marriage, until, in a dream, he was told, “not to be afraid.” And he was also instructed to name the child Jesus.
The significance of the name, Jesus, can’t be overstated. The word is translated from the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic as “Yahweh [God] saves.” It originates from an exchange between Moses and God in Exodus 3:15, where God answers Moses’ question about His Name. “I Am who I Am,” came the first-person declaration of His pre-existence. Then God tells Moses to use “the Lord” as a third-person description – “He is” – or Yahweh, with Israel’s Elders.
[Jesus would apply that first-person description before Jewish elders in John 8:58; “before Abraham was born, I Am!” Those present were enraged and picked up stones to kill Jesus; Abraham had lived nearly two thousand years before, and Jesus specifically identified Himself. Jesus would use it often; “I am the way…”]
Mary and Joseph had two ways to travel on the 80-odd mile trip, and since Mary was “with child,” most think they would have used the more manageable route southeast through the Jezreel Valley to Jericho, to Jerusalem and onward to Bethlehem. It would have been at least a five-day trek, perhaps more, and most likely with other travelers in a caravan for safety.
When the couple arrived in Bethlehem, we only know that the “inn,” as the word is often translated, was full. More likely, the word translated as an inn meant a “place to stay,” whether it was in the home of relatives that still lived in Bethlehem or another house that was known to rent space to travelers. Regardless, by the time Mary and Joseph reached Bethlehem, the only space available for them was with the animals in a stable or a cave. It was likely either part of the house itself or attached, both common in that day.
There is no indication of how long the couple had been in Bethlehem, only that the “time came” and that Jesus was born. He wasn’t born in a palace, but in the hay and dirt with animals, using a manger, an animal trough, for a crib — the lowliest of stations reserved for the greatest of Kings.
We do know that the heavens erupted in jubilation, with angels praising God and announcing His arrival. But they didn’t reveal the birth to the local rulers or regional governors, or religious leaders. Instead, a “heavenly host” went to shepherds in the hills, the “blue-collar” workers of their day — hard-working and straightforward people — humble people, who had the privilege of being the first to bow before the Savior of the World.
The Old Testament speaks to the coming Messiah, from Genesis to Malachi, in hundreds of prophecies. In Bethlehem, nine were fulfilled that changed the world forever, revealing God’s rescue plan for broken people – the first chapter of the original love story. The only Man born without the burden of Adam’s DNA, free from the original Fall – a Savior that would sacrifice Himself to free us. You, and me.
The raw authenticity of Scripture and the crushing honesty of its descriptions and diagnoses of how we live with each other are without limit in their insightfulness – their Truth.
No less so in 2020 than ever, He is still found on the road to Bethlehem.