When we read the Christmas story in both Matthew and Luke, we should be struck at how unassuming and insignificant an occasion it actually was. The real Christmas story should destroy our paradigms that suggest bigger is better, leveraged popularity is the pathway for success, and privilege and numbers are needed to produce results and yield an effective rate of return for donated resources. Everything about the original Christmas story should shake the foundations of our modern business-centered, attraction-model, theater-like structured church experience. It should render celebrity and high professionalism dead or at least as nothing in light of God’s promises, plans, and ways. It should destroy our notion that numbers have a better scaling affect on mission than the small insignificant moments and occasions set by God’s (pre)determined plan.
Mary could have started a movement; but the shepherds returned to their fields. Even the large magi entourage (and there were far more than just three wise men!) could have funded the project shortly left and is never heard of again. Reread the song Mary sung after she revealed to Elizabeth that she was with child by the Holy Spirit (how's that for explaining an illegitimate pregnancy in a shame culture). Listen for the lament and irony, how everything gets twisted and turned around:
A young couple, who was living with disgrace over what appeared to all family, friends, and onlookers to be an unplanned, pre-marriage pregnancy, had to endure ridicule and eventual banishment to a foreign country. Then shortly, numerous innocent children, two and under, were slaughtered (Matthew 2:16ff.) as a result of, by all outward human accounting, an illegitimate baby born in a dirty barn out back of a local, insignificant motel. The brief moments of rejoicing by shepherds quickly fade in the story and we are left with anguish and sorrow, and confusing mystery. Little about the story, as it is told in Luke and Matthew, is neat and proper; nor, is it a platform for success. It is messy, harmless to history, and is blatantly left mundane. Practically banal.
The Christmas story, nonetheless, is hopeful to every ordinary person, not because it is a spectacular church pageant, special evening production, or media broadcast, but for its insignificance. Like the poor, scandalous pregnant, unwed teenager sang (for Mary was most likely a mere young teenager in today’s standards), the Christmas scenes in the gospels are about God showing the strength of His arm in the most curious of ways and in the ordinary, messy life at the margins. And, then, right there in the actual Christmas story, God destroys the proud and arrogant thoughts of our hearts. Mary’s song is a lament for the arrogant and proud indeed rule the land and the rich are not empty-handed and too many go hungry—her lines lament the world as it is. It is praise also, for God’s Christmas story is his way in this world: a total reversal of what typically happens in “real” life; a reversal of what we are taught by those in power to expect—in life and, dare say, in church. Yet for a moment, in the biblical Christmas story, a small glimpse of ordinary life at the margins saves the day, bringing hope to all those who live upon the earth.
Think more deeply about Christmas.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.