I know I’m a little late on this. I actually wrote about the Christmas Story around Christmas time, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. Lately the principals I wanted to share have been on repeat in my mind, so I thought I would try again.
In my first year of college, I was interning at my home church (the church I first attended regularly, got saved in, etc.) Around Christmas time, I was scheduled to speak at the Wednesday night youth group, and the assigned topic was Mary. Although I was busy with my finals, I never wanted to turn down an opportunity to serve, and I was happy to do it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to properly prepare, so I read Mary’s story in the Gospels, specifically focused on the conception and birth of Jesus, with the goal of sharing the Christmas story. For the first time, the hour long drive through rush hour traffic seemed like a blessing as it provided some much needed extra time to reread the verses I planned to use and to pray about the message.
Years later, the only thing I remember about the message might be the only thing anyone else who was there remembers: To conclude the message, I asked the room full of fidgety middle schoolers to close their eyes and pretend they were Mary. I tried my best to get them to picture themselves as an unmarried, virgin Middle Eastern teenage girl who had just been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, who then told her some pretty crazy stuff. I tried to drive home the point of how crazy that would sound, not only to Mary, but to everyone around her. How much faith must that have taken? How brave must she have been? How much faith and trust would it require to carry out God’s will in this way? One of the most overlooked and under appreciated miracles of The Gospel is the divine protection God provided to Mary to keep her alive when her culture would call for her to be stoned to death for the apparent breaking of the law He Himself had created.
At least that’s what I meant to communicate. As I concluded that little visionary exercise, I welcomed the worship team back up to close out the night. As we passed each other, I noticed they all had mixed expressions; some were cracking up in laughter, while others looked confused. I didn’t grow up in church, and I’ve never fully accepted church culture. I knew what I said and the way I said it would be a new way of thinking about the Christmas story for many people in this conservative church full of loving, well-meaning people. The kids got it, and they were who I was speaking to.
As I reached the back of the youth room, I was surprised to see the Senior Pastor sitting there, apparently having taken the night off from the adult service to sit in and listen to me speak. He was a pretty mellow guy, and like me, he had very conservative personal views and actions, but rarely spoke up about them to impose them on others. He kept his feedback neutral, suggesting that I should maybe run ideas by someone first, while also appreciating my genuine efforts to teach truth to kids. The harsher feedback about the method of delivery that I expected never came, and I was free to speak another day. We laughed about it later.
Around Christmas time, the memory of that night kept coming back to me, and I kept thinking about Mary. Really, just think about that. Mary and Joseph both had supernatural encounters with God that put them in a pretty dangerous position that no one around them would believe.
Each of the four Gospels presents a different yet congruent account of Jesus and his birth, life and death. The Gospel of Mark, most likely the first Gospel written, was directed toward the Romans and begins with Jesus as a man calling John in the wilderness. In the first century, Rome was sharply divided into very specific social classes. Family name, legacy and social status were everything; Mark’s intentional omission of Jesus’ birth and early life serves to create a paradox that enabled Romans to notice that it was Jesus’ service that defined Him, not His family or where He came from. Although this may not seem relevant today, it was extremely relevant in that culture. Everyone had very specific ideas of the coming Messiah, and although Jesus fulfilled every one of them, He didn’t do it in the way they expected. How could a man with no recognized social status have such an impact on so many different classes in such a segregated society?
Matthew’s Gospel was directed toward the Jews, a much different audience, who would have been very well versed in the Old Testament. Matthew begins with a long genealogy, proving Jesus to be an ancestor of Abraham and King David. Capturing the detail-orientated attention of the Jewish scholars, Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, making it clear that He was a King better than David, a teacher better than Moses, and the governor, ruler and prince of Israel. As God’s son, he was not only Emmanuel, God with us, but the ultimate authority in heaven and on earth. Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ birth focuses on Joseph as a just man to whom the Angel of God appeared, entrusting him with the unique task ahead of him. Everything about Matthew’s Gospel presented Jesus in the way most likely to resonate with his specifically Jewish audience. How could one man have that genealogy and fulfill all those prophecies, perform all those miracles, and not be the Son of God?
Written to a primarily Gentile audience, Luke’s Gospel focuses on the marginalized and neglected groups of early Mediterranean society, including women, children, the sick and poor, and rejected people groups like the Samaritans. The Gospel of Luke provides the longest account of Jesus’ conception and birth, paying special attention to the role of the Holy Spirit and the women involved in the story. In this account, the Angel of God appears to Mary instead of Joseph, and we see words of praise and blessing of Elizabeth and Mary recorded; it was more significant than we realize that the words of women in this setting were recorded in such a significant narrative. Luke also emphasized the homeless status of Mary and Joseph at the time of Jesus’ birth, including the specific detail that Jesus was laid to rest in a feeding trough, in a barn, outside of an inn, among animals. It is Luke’s account that records the lowly shepherds, not the powerful wise men of Matthew’s account, following the prompting of God to witness this glorious event and to become the first to spread God’s tidings of goodwill and peace to all men, including the poor and rejected. How could a King of Kings and Lord of Lords have such humble beginnings, and how could so many unexpected characters play such important roles in His birth and life?
Most likely the last Gospel written, John is perhaps the most theologically focused. His account of Jesus’ birth begins in heaven, where the Word was with God and was God. As a “second Genesis account,” the Gospel of John purposely leaves out any of the other characters involved in the other accounts, focusing solely on Jesus, who chose to dwell among us. John emphasizes the idea that Jesus’ birth was the most significant event in history, because God became flesh. The light that He shined in the darkness of a world lost without Him mirrored the creation and the separation of heaven and earth. Jesus was presented as a divine new beginning that clearly had no beginning and no end. How could such a well thought-out plan for redemption look so contrary to what was so expected by the religious leaders of the day, who should have recognized all the signs that Jesus was who He said He was?
It is interesting to notice how the intent and audience of each Gospel author influenced their account of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. It is equally important that Jesus was King of the Jews, worthy of worship and obedience, yet a humane savior who showed a new way of serving the neglected and marginalized without status, recognition or supremacy, fulfilling the many prophecies in The Word of God because he is the Word of God.
Just think of poor Mary. Close your eyes if you want, and imagine you’re a virgin teenage girl in the Middle East, whose immaculate conception would raise almost as many questions as the son it was to produce. Think how hard it must have been to raise Jesus, not knowing exactly when, where or how He would fulfill the calling on His life, or what role you would play in it. Imagine how frustrating and hurtful it must have been to see the absolute truth of God rejected by those for whom it was so clearly intended, silenced and sacrificed for those no one expected- in fact, for those everyone expected to be unworthy. Picture yourself piecing the puzzle together day by day, as your son exceeded every expectation placed on him, but not in the ways he was expected to. Imagine being a first-hand witness to God not only entering the world in a manner that seemed too bad to be true, but also leaving the world with a purpose that seemed too good to be true. How confident must she have been in the absolute truth of God, despite the many doubts, fears and rejections that this absolute truth must have caused?
Close your eyes, and imagine that.