If the first chapter of Luke is a preface to a great story—the foretelling of a herald, the prophecy of a child, the song of a young mother—the second chapter is the culmination. The Roman world is called to a census. A young couple journeys to Bethlehem to be counted. A child is born. “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, 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 of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ 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, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”(1)
Often regardless of one’s thoughts about Christianity, the Christmas story is wonderful in its familiarity, calling forth each year a childhood delight in the monotonous, beckoning imaginations to a stable and a story. Christmas hymns full of imagery and story are piped in as background music at post offices and malls. Manger scenes can still be found as part of familiar Christmas décor.
Yet often for those to whom it is all most familiar, it is also a story we can find surprisingly unfamiliar each year. Like children delighting in another reading of a bedtime favorite, the Nativity is somehow still startling in its mysteries, the child still out of place in the manger, the story full of profound paradox.
The first time I walked through the crowded, pungent streets of Bethlehem, I was struck by the disparity between what I was seeing and “the little town of Bethlehem” I had imagined in pageants and songs. The harsh reality of God becoming a child in the midst of the cold and dark world I knew myself suddenly seemed a blaring proclamation: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. A plaque of the same words rests outside the dark and ancient church built upon what was once the place of the nativity. Reading this in Bethlehem, standing in a complicated, sad and beautiful land, I remember thinking I had never really considered it before: God taking on flesh to live here, in the midst of our chaos and fighting and despair.
Upon his conversion, Charles Wesley took to hymn writing as a means of attempting to capture the strange hope of a God among us, which was persistently stirring in his mind. Though a few of the words have long since been changed, one of Charles Wesley’s six thousand hymns is a widely beloved declaration of the Incarnation. Seeking to convey in pen and ink a Christmas story both familiar and startling, Wesley wrote:
Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
For Wesley, the Christ child in the manger was forever an indication of the great lengths God will go to reconcile his creation, a savior willing to descend that we might be able to ascend. “Welkin” is an old English term meaning “the vault of heaven.” Wesley was telling the radical story of the Incarnation: All of heaven opening up for the birth of a king and the rebirth of humanity.
The star of Bethlehem, the magi, the shepherds, and the hopeful Mary are all amid the long-imagined and inconceivable markers of a God among us. The birth of Christ is the timeless gesture that God has chosen to remain. Christmas invites us to imagine what it means if the hard cries of a real and unpolished world have really been heard, if a savior was born, the vault of heaven was truly opened.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Luke 2:8-14.