Every year, as the season of Advent progresses, I find myself focused on a different aspect of the Christmas story.
Some years it’s been Mary and the amazing faith it took to embrace her part in the Lord’s plan.
Some years it’s been Joseph and what it takes for a man to be father to the Son of God.
A couple of years ago it was the giving of gifts and the Lord’s generosity.
Last year it was connecting the First Coming to the Second.
This year, I think the focus might be on the hiddenness of it all. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.
Anyone who’s been around the process of giving birth ought to be aware that this is a bit of a conceit, rather like “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes”. Jesus was, in fact, a real human being, a Baby for all intents and purposes just like every other baby, with real tears and real wails of distress. And He didn’t come into the world without pain, either.
But that’s not really the point. The point is that the birth of the King-Messiah wasn’t in an imperial palace and heralded with trumpets.
The world, as it is wont to do, was focused on the lives and times of the rich and great. Augustus Caesar was on the throne in Rome; the Roman puppet Herod the Great ruled in the province of Judea. His building projects expanding Temple Mount and building the Herodion palace were fairly recently completed, monuments to himself and to human ideas of greatness.
And in a small village in the very shadow of Herod’s fortress palace, a couple of poor teenagers displaced by the great Caesar’s tax census laid their newborn in a feeding trough to get him off the floor of the barn.
The Son of God, the promised Deliverer and King, possessing more intrinsic greatness than every ruler or potentate that history has ever called “the Great”, born into the equivalent of a refugee camp for displaced persons in a conquered province, to a couple of teenagers from the very bottom of the economic ladder.
In the shadow of “Make America Great Again”, it’s… challenging.
Jesus’ homeland had no military power. It was occupied territory, under the sandaled heel of the empire that invented crucifixion as a means of execution and which came up with the terrifyingly simple Pax Romana: “Do not fight, or we will kill you”. The Romans were good at killing people in job lots.
And in this conquered territory, Jesus was born in a small village. Today we tend to exalt country life as a lifestyle to strive for, but back then it was the cities that were the places everyone wanted to live; they were the safe places where you could live out your life without so much fear of bandits or thieves. In terms of how we think about different types of places, Jesus was born in an urban ghetto.
Not only that, but He was born not to rich, powerful people but to the poorest of the poor. The “pair of doves or two pigeons” sacrifice for a firstborn that Joseph and Mary made to fulfill God’s Law was the very least sacrifice for the very lowest income bracket. Today, Mary and Joseph might not be earning enough to even pay income tax; back then, they were being shunted around like pawns on a chessboard by those who demanded their taxes.
Herod’s greatest self-named monument to his own glory, the palace at Herodion, was visible from Bethlehem, but what a difference! Swimming pools and gardens in the rocky Judean wilderness, all constructed on a mountain effectively built by Herod’s engineers, Jesus’ human family would probably have looked too scruffy even to live in the servants’ quarters.
Born in a stable, because there was no room in the inn. And you’d only be staying in the inn to begin with if you had no family in the area to stay with. Both of them being “from the house and line of David”, where were their relatives? It seems Joseph’s decision to obey the Lord and marry Mary anyway may have caused his relatives to disown them.
And so comes the King of the Universe. So very silently that even the Magi almost missed it. Not in a palace, not with trumpets. His birth proclaimed to shepherds – a profession so unskilled that it was frequently left to dozy children, of so little status that even farmers looked down on them. These are the fast-food restaurant workers and tollbooth attendants of the ancient world.
It’s appropriate. The Kingdom of the Messiah is fundamentally inverted compared to what humans value. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn…” in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Paupers, widows, tax-men, revolutionary terrorists, women and children exalted, the devout, God-fearing good folk of the Pharisee movement castigated and insulted. By the time of the early church, towns were screaming in panic that “the people who have turned the whole world upside-down have now come here!”
A Kingdom for the weak, the disadvantaged, the poor, the marginalised. Losers, misfits, the ugly and the unsuccessful, those who couldn’t make a go of it in the Roman world’s system. Led by a homeless man who had a political revolutionary among His inner circle and whose followers would institute a communistic economy among themselves, based on giving and sharing rather than buying and selling. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Tremble, o world.