"The Living Nativity"
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Fairy tales begin with the words, "Once upon a time." But the Christmas Gospel begins with the words, "And it came to pass in those days." Fairy tales occur in mythical lands. But today's Gospel occurs in the real town of Bethlehem during the actual reign of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. This is tremendously important for us to recognize. For in our pop culture, Christmas often focuses on make-believe and fantasy. Those things can certainly have their proper place. But it seems that, for many, the "stuff" of Christmas–the lights and gifts and music–can become a flight into an imaginary world, a temporary retreat from the real world and real life. And that is the exact opposite of the Christmas message. Luke emphasizes here that what he is writing is real history. It actually occurred in a real place and at a real time when certain real officials were in power. It isn't a legend or a myth or a fable. It is true, an accurate and factual account of the way things really were.
Christmas is not about escaping into some fantasy, dream world. It's about our life in the real world being redeemed and renewed by the Lord. It's about the real Son of God, through whom all things were created, entering into His creation as a true and literal baby boy, with real flesh and blood. It's about a first-time Mom giving Him birth in the humblest of circumstances–in the cold of night among real livestock and hay and smell. It's about the Lord of all taking on the form of a servant and being laid in a cattle feeder in order that He might rescue us from our sin. There is nothing unreal or imaginary about Christmas. For Jesus is the concrete and tangible love of God come to walk among us.
Christ was born with the animals. For we, because of sin had become like the beasts–survival of the fittest, self-preservation at all costs, following our basest instincts and desires. We have all fallen away from God, wanting to go our own way and do our own thing. In the process we have become less than human, inhuman. And so in order to save us from perishing eternally, Jesus the Son of God took on our human nature and made Himself to be placed in a feeding trough. The one who slept near the animals came to lift us out of our inhumanity and set us free from the beastly power of death and the devil. Jesus descended to the depths of our fallenness in order to raise us with Himself to the heights of eternal life. He became like us so that we may become like Him.
In the stable with the animals, we see Jesus as the new Adam, who has come to restore us and all things to paradise, to recreate us by His coming in the flesh. God the Son took our humanity into Himself so that we might be made new in Him. By His conception and birth Jesus has sanctified and purified our natures. His incarnation permeates and hallows mankind. God has greatly exalted us by becoming not an angel or any other creature but a true man, our human brother.
Christ became one of us in order that He might take our place under the Law to free us from its hellish judgment. Jesus' lowly birth teaches us of the humble life He would lead for us, and the lowly death He would suffer on our behalf. The wood of a manger would later be traded for the wood of a cross. In fact it was a tradition in some early Christian art to portray the birth of Christ as having taken place in a cave, perhaps in a hillside. This was done not only because animals in that region were often kept in caves or in stables built into an embankment, but also because this foreshadowed a later time when Christ would be buried in a cave-like tomb. Indeed, just as Jesus was here wrapped in cloths in His birth, so also He would be wrapped in cloths in His death.
The Son of God was born among us and became man for this very purpose: that He might die in the flesh in our place and shed His blood to ransom and purchase us from the powers of darkness. He was made to be like us in every way, except without sin, so that He might be our perfect stand in. As true man He was our substitute in death; and as true God He paid the infinite price our sins required, which we could not even begin to pay. Therefore, only in this God-man is there eternal life. Only in this One who was laid in a manger, who is now bodily raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, is there salvation. For only He could accomplish it. Every other religion is an illusion and a false hope.
The angels tell us of our only real hope: "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Fear not; do not be in terror any longer of death or of the judgment of God. For your sins are forgiven. Even the evils and the injustices that have been done to you have been cleansed from you by this holy birth. Christ the Savior has come to rescue you from the devil's prison house and to bring you into the eternal kingdom of God. Light has broken in and shattered the darkness forever. Rejoice greatly in the good news! For all of this is for you. Jesus is born to you, the angels said. He is your merciful King, your gracious Lord.
The angels certainly rejoiced over what God was doing for us. After announcing the good tidings to the shepherds, a whole multitude of the heavenly host spilled over heaven's edge and burst forth with praise to God, saying: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!" The very coming of Christ is a sign of God's good will toward us, that He wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Only Jesus brings real peace on earth–not simply temporary peace between people, but eternal peace with God. In Christ we who were once at war with God are now reconciled and put right with Him. God and man come together in Jesus, for He is Himself both God and man. Those who believe and are baptized into the body of Christ are thereby reunited with God. Truly Jesus is your Prince of Peace.
The shepherds were given a sign: a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. You also are given a sign of where to find Jesus. He is to be found humbly mangered in the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar. You don't need to go to grandiose musical performances of the Christmas story to experience closeness to the Christ-child. It isn't necessary to have living nativity re-creations with actors and live animals to feel like you're there. The living nativity is here. For Jesus Himself is here, for real, concretely and tangibly. He is really there on the altar in Holy Communion. The bread and the wine are His manger in which His body and blood are truly present to bring to you all the blessings of this holy night. There you are literally given to kneel before him. Dear Christians, you are in Bethlehem now. For the name "Bethlehem" means "house of bread." He who is the Living Bread from heaven comes down to make this place a Bread House, to satisfy your spiritual hunger and to fill you with His life.
Of course, if this is the living nativity here, if that is the manger, the feeding trough, then you and I have the part of the animals. But so be it. Let us humbly eat of the holy Sacrament of Christ, that our humanity may be eternally restored in Him who is truly human and truly divine. Let us with Mary keep and ponder all these things in our heart in penitent faith. And let us with the shepherds glorify and praise God for all the things which we have heard and seen in Christ, just as it has been told to us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Icons on this site are courtesy of: