Thoughts on Christmas.

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see!
Hail, th' Incarnate Deity!
Born to raise the sons of earth, 
Born to give them second birth!

Christmas--is it about celebrating a birth? Is it about kings and presents and family meals? Many of my friends on Facebook have written about the co-opting of a Roman holiday (Saturnalia, as I remember), or about resurrection, or various other perspectives. I think Christmas is about all these things. Like much of life, it is many-splendored. But, to borrow from a PhD student whose dissertation I once edited, Christmas is also part of a journey.

Life is a journey. We walk it from birth to death, learning and growing all the way. All of us end up along the way in unanticipated places of beauty, delight, or squalor. We experience starts and stops, hellos and goodbyes, loves and losses. Joni Mitchell wrote, "I've looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow it's life's illusions that I recall, I really don't know life at all." This journey is mysterious, awful, terrible, wonderful.

According to the Bible, God has always taken part in this journey. He was there at the beginning, speaking nothing into being, speaking chaos into order, speaking life and light. He shaped people from dust and breathed into them His own breath, shared His life with them. He was there when the first love story spun in its ballet, there to see the first shared delight in the discovery of another's love. He was there at the first fall, there with them in the first failure, there for the first death. He was there walking with Enoch, there at the flood, there walking with Abraham through his starts and stutters in the journey. He was there with Abraham's children for generations, even when they betrayed Him and rejected His presence. And all the time, even from Adam and Eve, He was making promises about being there in a different way.

Christmas is our memorial of God's entering the story in a physical way. At Christmas, a young girl rejected by her husband's family gave birth as best as she could in an animal pen. God entered our story as a man, and His first bed was a trough. In the book of Hebrews, the author writes, "For the bodies of those animals [sacrificed on the altar] whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach" (13:11-12). Jesus started life outside the camp. When I was in seminary, one of my professors talked about how punishment worked in the tribal area of Africa where he had served. They had no prisons; instead, anyone who acted in a way deserving of severe punishment was simply expelled. They had to go outside the camp. The people viewed this as a fate worse than death. And that's where Jesus started. It's even possible that He might have been born outside; the word used for a manger can indicate a pen under the sky, rather than enclosed for people to live in. The beginning of His journey took place in the dust and stink of animals and was attended by shepherds, who were often rejected for their occupation among the sheep. No king was ever born like this.

The stable was just the beginning of the journey. He began life outside the camp; He would be a refugee in Egypt in His early childhood. He would work at a difficult manual trade until thirty, living in His hometown where His relatives and neighbors viewed Him as a bastard son and treated Him as such. Then for three years His steps led down dusty roads and narrow streets, through fields and across seas, into court and up a hill to death. He was a man of joy and playfulness, a man whose gentle hands brought healing, a man in whose eyes a broken woman could find complete tenderness. He entered our journey. He felt the rejection we feel, endured the sting of words and whips both. According to Isaiah, writing 700 years before His birth, He was not an attractive man. He wasn't the blond-haired, blue eyed hunk whose portrait has hung in so many Western churches and homes. I think He probably had tremendous mirth and loved to laugh, but Isaiah also says He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He empathized with people so much that He felt it in His guts, couldn't help but act. He genuinely loved people; He died in our place and poured His blood out as a sacrifice so that we could come to God without fear of punishment. His blood said, "Death has already come to this person; this debt has been paid." He walked there in 33 years, from the trough to the cross. Because His death was enough He was raised from the dead, proving that He had totally settled everything with God, and He went back up to Heaven, where He came from. His journey will bring Him back one day to collect the people who have trusted Him, and He will set everything right, and then we will have a new beginning on a new journey with Him forever.

Christmas is the beginning of the journey. We have not yet seen the end. He enters each life that will give Him entrance, and He takes us with Him on His journey outside the camp. He was born not in honor but in shame, and to those who live with shame He offers His life and His leading in the journey. Celebrating that kind of Christmas must be a lifelong pursuit, a journey, and not merely the focus of a single day.

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