Friends, have you ever studied the Christmas story?
I love coming back to this story every December. Reading the Bible (especially this part of it) is like taking a Shakespeare class. I love returning to these themes, and these classic stories for the same reason that I loved reading Dostoyevsky and Homer in university. It gives you a new perspective on the world. Discussing these stories is a way to discuss life.
So I love talking about Luke, Isaiah, Daniel, and John in study groups, and thinking about what the author’s original intent was; putting these ancient characters in their historic and cultural contexts. I love looking at the Old Testament and the Jewish prophecies, and how they fit in with New Testament letters and tales.
And, by the way, now that we’re here in the U.S. isn’t it so strange how layered this story has become, 2,000 years later in suburban America? I mean, originally, Christmas was actually completely bizarre. It’s this story about an unmarried Jewish woman impregnated by God, giving birth to God’s son in a cave in Palestine. It sounds like some really bad science fiction movie starring, perhaps, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
So how, 2,000 years later in suburban America, has it become the winter holiday it is? Christmas, as we know it, is set against this background of hot chocolate, red and green sweaters, fir trees decorated with glass ornaments, awkward family gatherings set to tunes about reindeer and snowmen. Christmas is now fake wooden mangers in the snow, a frenzy of holiday spending, the taste of peppermint, the smell of cinnamon, and movies about a man dressed in red coming down chimneys to put presents in our footwear.
But once you’ve sifted through all the layers, and you come back to that original manuscript with a teenage Jewish virgin who travels donkey-back to the mountain city of Bet Lehem to give birth, you start to wonder what all the connotations of this story are; this story that some 2 billion people claim is the start of their religion.
If this is the story of Emmanuel; of how God came to us, what does it mean that He came as a baby?
This is my first Christmas as a parent, and so when I think this year about God coming as a baby, it means something wholly new for me.
God does not come to us as a politician, speaking to the press, and toeing a party line. He does not come to us as a businessman in a downtown office, with whom we must make an appointment. He does not come as a celebrity whom we see on a screen. He does not come as a success; someone we have to build a network in order to meet.
God moved into your family, into your arms. He woke you up in the middle of the night, crying, needing a diaper change, demanding your attention. He came silly – cooing, and blowing raspberries, and giggling. He came learning and playing peek-a-boo. He came with round cheeks, fuzzy head, toothless grin. He changed who you were as a person, changed the way you saw the world. God came as a disruption; a destruction of the quiet, secure little life you’d built. He came as your responsibility, as your future, as a new member of your most intimate circle.
So, if that’s the story of Christianity, doesn’t that mean that, for the majority of the time, I’ve got this whole Christianity thing wrong? If God comes to us as a child, I guess that means we’re probably all taking this whole religion thing, and ourselves, a little too seriously? Maybe relating to God means a bit more silliness? A bit more patience? A bit less rushing?
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” -Jesus (Matthew 18:3)
That’s how I want to experience God this Christmas: as a new parent with a baby; as a child filled with wonder.
So that, my friends, is it. And here’s wishing you a Merry, Merry Christmas, full of laughter and wonder, exhaustion, inconvenience, disruption, and delight, whether you meet it in the U.S. or in Russia; in the suburbs or the city; in the living room or a church or a hospital or a gas station. I hope your Christmas is full of joy, and good news, and celebrated with the God who is near; the Christ who is with us.
Lots of love from us here in the suburbs!