A general position on December birthdays (particularly for those of us who hold them) seems to be that its proprietors are easily neglected. We are over-shadowed by Christmas decorations in November and over-looked in December by relatives busy with Christmas errands and office parties. And yet, I suspect that others, like me, have always secretly loved it. In the season of our births, the world was awake, decking the halls, and a great number of them were looking to the birth of another infant. The spirit of Christmas seems a part of our own, the birth of Christ reminding us each year that we, too, were born, that we were fragile, that we were held. For those born in December (and for any who remember their own beginnings in the scenes of Advent), the season offers a time of contemplating infantile beginnings, a lesson in what it means to be human like no other. Stories and celebrations of one’s birth are juxtaposed with a nativity story told long before we were born and one that will continue to be told long after us.
In fact, the story of Christianity is a story filled with nativity scenes. In these stories, we find a God present before we have accomplished anything and longing to gather us long before we know it is happening. Thus David can pray, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” And God can say to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” And those who witnessed the miracle of Elizabeth and Zechariah can rightly exclaim God’s hand upon the child before that child could say his own name: “The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.”(1)
In a world where significance and identity are earned by what we do, by what we have accomplished, by what we own, by what we earn, and Christmas is about the lines we fought, the lists we finished, the gifts we were able to secure, the kingdom of God arrives scandalously, jarringly—even offensively—into our captive and often content lives. In this kingdom, a person’s value begins before she has said or done the right things, before he has accumulated the right lifestyle, or even made the right lists. In this kingdom, God not only uses children in the story of salvation, not only calls us to embrace the kingdom as little children, but so the very God of creation steps into the world as a child.
Children are not usually the main characters in the stories we tell, yet the story of Christmas begins and ends with a child most don’t quite know what to do with. Here, a vulnerable baby in a structure filled with animals breaks in as the harbinger of good news, the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, the anointed leader who comes to set the captives free—wrapped in rags and resting in a manger. Coming as a child, God radically draws near, while at the same time radically overthrowing our conceptions of status, worth, power, and authority. Jesus is crowned king long before he can sit in a throne. He begins overturning idols and upsetting social order long before he can even speak.
If truth be told, perhaps I feel a certain delight in celebrating births and birthdays at Christmastime because it is the season in which it is most appropriate—and most hopeful—to remember our own fragility, our dependency, the mystery of the cycles of death and life, and the great reversal of the kingdom of God: For God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.(2) Advent, like childhood, reminds us that we are in need of someone to hold us. It also reminds us that, like the baby in a Bethlehem stable, we too are somewhat out of place, homeless and longing to be welcomed home. The image of a tearful baby in a manger is a picture of God in his most shocking, unbefitting state—the Most High becoming the lowest, the face of God wrapped tightly in a young girl’s arms.
How true that to be human is to be implicitly religious, for even within our most deeply felt needs for love and refuge, we are reminded that there is one who comes so very far to meet us. Inherent in our most vulnerable days, whoever we are, is the hope that God, too, took on the despairing quality of fragility in order to offer the hope of wholeness. In our most weakened states of despair and weakness, Christ breaks in and shows the paradoxical power of God in an unlikely nativity scene. Glory to God in the lowest, indeed.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) cf. Psalm 139:13-14, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 1:65-66.
(2) 1 Corinthians 1:27.