The story of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, and the Bethlehem baby in the manger tells us the “how” and the “what” of Christmas. But it only tells us a little about the “why.” Now, Luke wrote the Christmas story in his book, his gospel, and he has the whole rest of the book to tell us more about the why. But we only have one evening worship service.
I’ve mentioned before that I wrote my thesis in theological college on a guy named Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian who lived over 1600 years ago. I know, stop the excitement. No one here is going to open a gift they find under the Christmas tree tomorrow morning and be shouting, “A book by Gregory of Nyssa! Sweet!” Well, I would be thrilled.
Gregory writes about the “why” of Christmas. He says that the story at the beginning of the Bible, of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, shows that humans have been led astray by evil, and as a result humanity is mired in misery and death. It’s as if humans are held captive by evil and can’t escape on their own. With the evil events in the news of the last week, mass murder in Connecticut, war in Syria, bombings in Pakistan, I don’t think we can disagree.
Gregory says that only God, who created us, can restore us to grace. So, out of God’s immense love, God becomes human, to restore humanity to life and freedom.
But, Gregory asks, if God is all-powerful, why didn’t God just save humanity with one word, or one click of the divine fingers? Why be born as a powerless, vulnerable human baby, which would seem humiliating for a transcendent, incomprehensible divine being, and a pretty roundabout way to accomplish the salvation of all people?
Gregory responds to his own question, we shouldn’t argue about how God saves us. But he continues that God is good, wise, and just, and so God must demonstrate these qualities in the way that God acts to deliver humanity. Justice demands that as humans of their own free will had allowed themselves to be imprisoned by evil, God must not use force to free them. God’s justice demands that humanity be redeemed by non-violent, just means, not by one arbitrary divine act.
So God takes the most good, wise, and just course of action: God who is eternal, uncreated, beyond all space and time, comes into finite space and time. The Bible puts it as, the Word becomes flesh. The divine becomes human, not appearing as a fully-grown human adult, but revealed as a baby, born just as we were born, with all the mess and pain and joy of our births.
Born as an infant, the Son of God knows the full range of human experience, from birth through childhood to adult life. And he is born, not as the child of a royal or aristocratic or rich business family, not in a palace or a luxurious home, not in a city like Rome or Jerusalem that is the centre of political and military and economic and religious power – but in an obscure out-of-the-way town, on the fringe of the empire, where there is no room for his pregnant mother in an inn and she and her husband have no money to buy shelter, so the newborn baby is laid in a feeding trough for animals.
His human parents are in this little town for a census. We know from the Bible that for ancient Jews it was a grave sin to conduct a census, because it was seen as a foreign practice connected with taxation and forced labour. In the Bible there is vigorous opposition to even that great Biblical hero King David taking a census, debates even more passionate than those in Canada over the long form census.
But in the story the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, orders a census, and these objections don’t matter. The empire needs a census in order to levy taxes to pay for its wars. The Christmas story emphasizes that Joseph and Mary and even the baby, the baby who is the divine made human, are helpless in the face of the empire and its bureaucracy and the violence it has at its disposal to enforce its will. They are poor people, trapped in the empire’s schemes. Bethlehem may be a long way from the imperial capital, but it is still under foreign occupation, and any danger to the empire will be crushed ruthlessly. And later in the story it is: the king the empire has put in place sends his soldiers to hunt down the child. The little family is forced to flee as refugees while the king’s men slaughter all the boys in Bethlehem, a part of the story that chills us as we think immediately of children’s lives cut short in Connecticut and Syria today.
And, the story tells us, the emperor has ordered a census not just of this far-off province in the Middle East, but of the entire Roman world. God is coming among us in a way that makes clear that the Christ child is born to take on not just the condition of Palestine oppressed by Rome, but the condition of the whole world, the human condition.
The Christmas story for us is very sentimental, but it it isn’t really: it’s a story of travel in harsh, dangerous conditions, of forced cooperation with the order of a foreign government, the ever-present threat of violence, social stigma, dire poverty, a birth in unsanitary surroundings, cold and dirt and stench and hunger, a panicked escape at night from the rage of a dictator who kills anyone who might threaten his grip on power. That was no time for a child to be born. And, yet, when you think about it, no time is a good time for a child to be born. All times in human history, including today, are marred by violence and injustice and suffering. Some of us here were born during wars and depressions. I was born just before the Cuban Missile Crisis and the very real possibility of nuclear destruction. Times always seem dark, even when we’re not being told that the Mayan calendar predicts the world’s end. It is never the best time to bring a child into this broken world. And yet we do. That was no time for a child to be born, yet in that little town of Bethlehem long ago, in the dark streets shone the everlasting light. Maybe the best way to express this mystery is in poetry: In the words of our Christmas carols, or this poem by Madeline L’Engle:
This is no time for a child to be born, with the
earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn that time
runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born, in a land
in the crushing grip of Rome,
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn, yet
there did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born? The inn is
full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn – yet Love still takes
the risk of birth.
We say in the season of Advent: Christ has come, Christ is coming, Christ will come again. That was no time for a child to be born, yet God came to us as a baby. It is no time for love to be born, yet God comes among us in the Spirit, in people and places that are as unexpected and surprising to us today as an unimportant town and a teenage mother and a manger were back then. It is no time for love to be born, yet love is. This is the mystery of Christmas, this is the miracle of Christmas, this is the good news of Christmas: out of love God enters into the life of humanity so completely that the divine, who created atoms and galaxies, comes among us as weak and dependent as we were, to lift us out of our powerlessness in the face of death and the violence and hatred and oppression of the world and help us to realize that we are people created in God’s image, and we can be much more than we are if we let Christ be born in us today.
God comes in love to be wrapped up in humanity. The great hymn writer Charles Wesley expressed this mystery, the “why” of Christmas, in his words: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.” And so we sing with the angels.
1. The summary of Gregory of Nyssa's thought regarding the Incarnation is largely drawn from his Catechetical Oration.
2. I was inspired by Jack Miles' discussion of the census in Luke 2:1-3 in his Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, and in particular his statement that "all the world should be registered" means that Christ is taking on not just the condition of Judea under Roman rule, but "all oppressed people at the mercy of officious power" (page 87).
3. The Madeline L'Engle poem is “The Risk of Birth, Christmas 1973,” The Weather of the Heart, p.73.