‘We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.’
Refugee, by Malcolm Guite1
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’
(which means ‘God with us’).”
Matthew 1:23 (Isaiah 7:1)
Found in Luke Chapter 1 and 2 and Matthew chapter 1 and 2
“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Luke 1:26-28
What if your calling put you at odds with your whole world? What if God’s will for you seemed like a kick in the face of all you had been told, raised in and led to believe? What If you knew His call would leave you alienated and alone, estranged from your community, friends and even your family, would you still say yes? Yes to God?
Sometimes saying yes to God is saying no to safety, security, and the future we’d always thought we would have.
“Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever; his kingdom will never end.”
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
She was all alone this girl. Alone in the knowledge of what God had called her into. Young. Inexperienced. Courageous.
Courage isn’t only for the strong. Often it is the weakest, the youngest and the smallest who need it and possess it the most, perhaps because they have little else to hold onto; little else but courage, and the God of all the Universe.
Mary. She had little else, and she gave Him all she had.
“I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.” Luke 1:38
She held nothing back. And it would cost her. Everything. In saying “yes” to God she risked her life and dashed her reputation into dirt. She could have been stoned to death under traditional Jewish law if people didn’t believe her. And who would have believed her? Who was she? Just a simple country girl from the back waters of nowhere. Nothing good came from Nazareth (John 1:46). Nothing good would come from all this scandal. Would it?
God had upended her life, to give her life. In giving up her appearance of purity she received her calling to be the mother of God. She was the only human being present when the angel first spoke His name, naming the mystery that would become her calling, and from that moment onwards she carried her secret, treasuring it up, held deep inside, knit beneath her beating heart. God taking on skin within the flesh of her.
And while God forms silently within the safety of her womb she walks the painful and lonely path of awkward explanations, misunderstanding, potential divorce, scandal and public shame. Alone. With Him. Within.
“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: his mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Matthew 1:18-19
Joseph’s life is now also turned upside down, God upending his life to give him life and the calling of being the earthly father of God.
“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” Matthew 1:20-25
In sheltering God and giving Him his name, Joseph took on the disgrace that would have been Mary’s alone2. He gave up the appearance of righteousness for the living of true righteousness. In sheltering God and giving Him his name, Joseph grafted the infant God into the tribe of Judah, the house and line of David, the lineage of Kings. The true King of Heaven and earth grafting Himself into the royal line of David.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” Luke 2:1-5
Together Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem for the census; for the baby King of all the Universe to be born in the birthplace of Kings. This birthplace where Heaven and earth would meet, and God, who gave all humans breath, would draw His first breath through burning infant lungs.
This birthplace that would soon after become the burial ground for the massacre of the innocents, ground zero for the powers of darkness racing to snuff out the light that will overcome them.
But this isn’t the story we tell around a warming hearth at Christmas time. We wrap our Christmas story up all warm and cosy in green and golds. We tie it all up with ribbons and tinsel and jingling bells, but the truth is, that the truth of this story, it’s going to soak through eventually. Like eternity bleeding through the fraying edges of all time, into our time. Into this life on earth without peace on earth.
But how can violence and oppression and the murder of babies, how can this be the setting, the backdrop for the coming of the King of the Universe?
The ribbons and the tinsel, the holly and the ivy, they weren’t there at the first Christmas and neither was peace on earth. This God chose to be born under the shadow of one of the most violent and oppressive political regimes of all time. He chose to come into History at one of the lowest points of His chosen people’s existence. God’s chosen people, the people bearing His promise, had been through wave after wave of heart deadening invasion and were now under the pounding fist of the Roman Empire. They had ‘peace on earth’ in the form of the ‘Pax Romana’3 which is Latin for “Roman Peace”, the centuries long, achingly long, period of time when Rome owned a piece of everywhere else, and Israel was just one slice of their large pie. Small. Insignificant. Consumed. How they longed for peace, peace on earth. Like we do.
But when the people of Israel looked up to heaven, there was silence. It seemed. Their temple stood vacant, Echoing. Hollow. Like an absence. Like a silence that felt so loud.
After the Patriarchs, Moses, the Judges, the Kings, the prophets of old, the Maccabees, after all the years of God’s wrestling partnership with Israel, with human beings, then there was a silence. God had been silent for four hundred achingly long years. No prophets, no oracles no messages, no words. Silence. Not the quiet silence of peace. But the desperate silence of waiting. For something.
It may have felt like abandonment, it may have felt too long for the people of the promise, but it was not an empty silence. It was the calm before a storm, the cosmic storm of God’s boldest battle move yet. God’s great plan of redemption was beginning. Almost unseen.
In the past He had called brave warrior leaders like Moses, Joshua and Caleb; mighty men like Gideon and Samson and giant-slaying Kings like David. But now in boldness God was about to send His strongest, most powerful, most strategic warrior yet.
As a baby.
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:6-7
And God’s great battle cry is the high pitched cry of a vulnerable infant, His bold stroke of strategic warfare, the flailing arms of a defenceless babe, placed right there into the lack of all humanity. Innocent. Vulnerable. And Defenceless.
And nobody saw it coming, though Isaiah fore-saw him coming and Anna and Simeon were waiting for his coming. Into the silence He slips unseen, in the stillness of a whisper, the hush of a breath drawn in, He arrives and wraps Himself within the arms of an insignificant teenager from the backwaters of nowhere; ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ (John 1:46).
Mary, her inexperienced, insignificant eyes witness YHWH take His first breath on earth through burning infant lungs, breathing in the scent of life on this earth; the scent of no room at the Inn; the scent of poverty.
The scent of life on earth without peace on earth.
And by virtue of being born to this unwed young mother YHWH puts Himself and His earthly parents on the bottom rung of a pious society’s social status ladder. When Mary and Joseph said “yes” to God they said yes to social disgrace, and yet they said yes anyway.
With haste Mary had fled to visit Elizabeth in the hill country (Luke 1:39) and then travelled to Bethlehem with Joseph. It was not necessary for her to make the journey to Bethlehem, only the male family head was required for the census. And the physical stress of making such a journey while pregnant, it’s likely that nothing but shame and social disgrace could have induced such unnecessary behaviour.
Had the disgrace not been there, had she not felt the social pressure and disdain motivating her to leave Nazareth for the relief of anonymity on the dusty roads of Israel, would she have been in Bethlehem at all? Was the very shame, the pain of it all the hand of God ensuring the fulfilment of the prophecy, ensuring His son, the true King of Israel, the true King of the Universe would be born in the city of Kings?
“But you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel”
Matthew 2:6 (Micah 5:2, Hosea 11:1, 2:18, Jeremiah 31:35)
But how can shame and pain and poverty and rejection and no room at the inn, how can this be the setting, the backdrop for the coming of the King of the Universe?
Babies born in Israel took their first breath surrounded by supportive relatives and assisting midwives. Male babies were greeted with music and rejoicing in the off-chance that Israel’s much anticipated Messiah had just entered time and space.
Jesus’ first breath was in an animal stall with no family and only the arms of his teenage mother and bewildered earthly father to hold him. There is no record of a community chorus heralding His arrival. The true Messiah and King of Israel arrives unseen, into the dank world of poverty and want.
But there was a song, there was music and rejoicing. Mary and Joseph experienced only the want and the no room at the inn. And the powers of the time, the religious leaders heard not a whisper of His arrival. The King of the universe arrives and their lives go on untouched. The coming of the true Messiah, who is it first announced to? Not to the ruling empire, not to the elite sophisticates, not to the religious establishment… but to the poorest of the poor; the shepherds, the outcasts on the hillside who were considered too uncouth to even be allowed passed the outer courtyards of the Jewish Temple.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
And the sign the Angels speak of to find our way to this King? ‘You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger’.
His poverty was the sign! The sign the celestial messengers gave to the poor shepherds to find the King of all the spinning Universe, the same King who spoke light and life into being, the same King who breathed out stars and set the world in place. His poverty was the sign. He was to be found in an animal food trough wrapped in rags!
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their’s is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Matthew 5:3
The Kingdom of Heaven breaks into earth, into the filth of an animal feed trough, wrapped in rags by a teenager from the backwaters of nowhere.
The King of the Universe became destitute, the one to whom all worlds belong and through whom all things were made, became a helpless baby, a child of socially-questionable birth circumstances and soon after a refugee in Africa. God sends His son, Himself, into the poor country communities of a failed state occupied by an oppressive Roman regime and a corrupt puppet King. There was no red ribbon and gold tinsel in Israel during Jesus’ childhood. Only the gold glint of Roman metal and the red blood of babies slaughtered by twisted ambition. Before He could speak full sentences Jesus became a refugee in Northern Africa (Egypt) and when He returned to the promised land as a child, He returned to the unsophisticated communities of Galilee, to Nazareth: a community notorious for nothing; nothing good anyway.
But how can all this shame and poverty and political violence and no room at the inn, how can this be the setting, the backdrop for the coming of the King of the Universe? How can this God who parted the red sea, dwelt in fire and cloud and thundered from Mt Zion, how can this same God return to walk again with His people in the muck and mire of poverty, the grit and grime of human ambition, the darkness of humanity’s in-humanity to one another?
‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’) Matthew 1:23
He didn’t come to be with us in our ducks-in-a-row existence. He didn’t come to be with us in our comfortable and convenient answers. He didn’t come to be with us in our neat and tidy church buildings. He didn’t come to be with us in our lives on the ‘right’ side of town. He didn’t come to be with us in our self ‘righteousness’ and wealth.
He came into our poverty, our want, our pain, our fear, our brokenness. Our need.
God didn’t come into our light. He came into our darkness, to become our light.
This is who He is, who He has always said He is…
‘This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
Where will my resting-place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
and so they came into being?’
declares the Lord.
‘These are the ones I look on with favour:
those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
and who tremble at my word.’
He is the lamb upon the throne. All empires, all Herod’s are under His feet. All power is His. But He wields His power in ways we barely fathom and dwells with the humble in the humblest of circumstances.
And we need this story like nothing else on earth. The true story of Christmas, this reviving reality of how Peace came to earth. From elsewhere.
As a baby.
Into our darkness.
To become our light.
This God, He begins as He means to go on. No more going on as the world had been carrying on, no power-plays, empire-building, regime-changes. No more wealth winning and might makes right. His Kingdom operates differently to every other human system that ever has and ever will exist.
And God meant to make this clear right from His very first breath through infant lungs.
‘We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want’.
Refugee, by Malcolm Guite1
Compare the God we see in through the Christmas story to the powers around us in the world (politics, wealth, ambition, power).
Where is this Immanuel with us on earth today?
How can we join Him there?
References, Notes and Credits
1 ‘Refugee’, Malcolm Guite, from ‘Waiting on the Word’, Canterbury Press Norwich, 2015
2 NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Note on Matthew 1:24
3 Pax Romana, (Latin: “Roman Peace”) a state of comparative tranquillity throughout the Mediterranean world from the reign of Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE) to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161 –180 CE). The empire protected and governed individual provinces, permitting each to make and administer its own laws while accepting Roman taxation and military control. http://www.britannica.com/event/Pax-Romana
All Biblical quotations are from the NIV Bible UK version (NIVUK) unless otherwise stated. Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
All photos are taken by myself (Liz Campbell) unless otherwise specified below.
Photographs of my daughter Zoë as a baby by Caroline ‘Monkey’ Harrison.