While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Mark Twain observed, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” pointing out that “fiction is obliged to stick with possibilities.” (Mark Twain, Following the Equator) If Twain is right, then nothing in fiction is as wonderfully strange and impossible as the truth of Christmas. Who could have imagined! Who can comprehend or explain! The Eternal God from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things (Romans 11:36), deigns to make His appearance as a helpless newborn. He who wields all authority over heaven and earth makes Himself totally dependent on others.
Gregory of Nazianzos was hailed throughout the early church as “The Theologian”, and he spoke in amazement at the strange and impossible truth of the Incarnation:
The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature. (Sermon 45)
Though existing for all eternity, the Son of God stoops to become our brother. The Creator becomes a part of His creation as Infinity becomes an infant. A more humble place of birth could not exist than Jesus’ manger, stinking of urine, old straw, and stableyard animals. But here is true God and true Man born into the realm of time and space. Everything about the true Christmas story is so strange and impossible as it tells us the heart and mind of God: God is on the side of His people and ready to meet us where we are. As Bonhoeffer reminded: “God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas) Jesus will for our sakes risk reputation, trading in “Almighty God” for “drunkard”, and, “friend of tax-collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).
Today’s Scripture points out that Jesus was born in a manger, as “there was no place for them in the inn.” This becomes symbolic of Jesus’ life and people’s rejection of Him. Yes indeed, truth is stranger, more impossible than fiction: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11). Again and again the Son of God seeks entrance into crowded lives and is rejected. And yet there is a truth stranger, and more impossible sounding: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God” (John 1:12).
What a wondrous gift God bestows on us at Christmas! And what a wondrous message we have to tell the world: “He became what we are that we might become what he is.” (Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word)
The strange and impossible truth of the Incarnation means that Christmas isn’t over! When we’ve taken down the tree and stored the decorations, Jesus will still be God in the flesh for us, on our side! We have someone in heaven who one day will welcome us with nail-scarred hands and feet. John Calvin rejoiced in the Good News that “by becoming Son of Man with us he has made us sons of God with him; by his descent to earth he has prepared our ascent to heaven.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion)
“And the Word became flesh”: God came down to lift us up!
- What might some people find “strange” or “impossible” about the true Christmas story?
- What does Jesus being born in a manger mean to you?
- What do you want to say to Jesus on this Christmas day?
EMBODIED PRAYER: FACE DOWN
In the Bible we frequently see intense prayer expressed as people fall on their faces before God. It is an outward sign of reverence to lie with face to the ground in God’s presence. By this we acknowledge His complete sovereignty and right to rule in our lives.
When God made an everlasting covenant with Abraham, Abraham “fell on his face” before the Lord (Genesis 17:3). When Joshua faced great enemies he “fell on his face” in God’s presence until the evening (Joshua 7:6). When a leper desperately seeking healing came to Jesus “he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him” (Luke 5:12). In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus “threw himself on the ground and prayed” (Matthew 26:39). Heaven’s angels fall on their faces before God’s throne and worship Him (Revelation 7:11). Praying face down before God is a Biblical expression of reverence to God and submission to His omnipotence and wisdom.
Today and every day of the fourth week of Advent pray the Lord’s Prayer with your face to the ground in God’s presence.
—St. Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany