It is a strange story. There were shepherds living out in the fields, protecting their sheep from predators in the night. An angel appeared to them, not the sort of modern sentiment, but a terrifying wall of light that told them not to be afraid. A baby had been born, and they could find him wrapped up and resting in a feeding trough. To a group of outsiders, God offered the first birth announcement. To a peasant mother outside of Bethlehem, the Son of God was born.
If we take a step back from the familiar dance and rush of Christmas and consider the story the Church around the world is really waiting for, we may well be thrown off our usual Christmas kilter. This is not really the innocuous historical narrative we imagine. This is not a dull or domesticated story. The bright lights and colors of ad campaigns and Christmas pageantry can easily paint over the stark scenery of a story that startled history itself. Who imagined God coming as a child, a God stepping into our world through an animal stall and into the unlikely arms of an unwed mother? Who can understand that story?
Yet even long before these strange additions to the story of this God among his people, the prophets were asking similar questions: “Who has understood the mind of the LORD?”(1) This God who moves among people, touching all of life and history is certainly not the quiet and tame being we often imagine. God’s movement isn’t predictable. God’s stories are not the kind of stories we would write if the telling were up to us. God’s thoughts are the sort of thoughts that expose deception and obliterate darkness, that overshadow souls and rewrite stories.
It is the same with the child born in a stable two thousand years ago. The infant the world vaguely remembers lying peacefully in a homey manger with cattle lowing nearby did not take long to fulfill the words spoken to his young parents weeks after his birth: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”(2) The old man’s words to Mary are definitely not the sort of thing a stranger typically says to a young mother holding the hopes and fears of a new baby. Is this the child we are anticipating this Advent?
British author Dorothy Sayers once lamented the manner in which Jesus is often remembered: he is the quiet sage full of wisdom, the safe and peaceful one of history. He is, for all practical purposes, somewhat dull, someone we might be interested in at a later time. Yet Sayers writes:
“The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”(3)
The Christian season of Advent is a time of anticipation not for the harmless baby surrounded by lights and presents, but for the dynamic savior who is born into our midst in a way that must forever change us. “Do you want to be delivered?” asked Dietrich Bonhoeffer in an Advent sermon more than 70 years ago. “That is the only really important and decisive question which Advent poses for us. Does there burn within us some lingering longing to know what deliverance really means? If not, what would Advent then mean to us? A bit of sentimentality. A little lifting of the spirit within us? A little kinder mood? But if there is something in this word Advent which we have not yet known, that strangely warms our heart; if we suspect that it could, once more, once more, mean a turning point in our life, a turning to God, to Christ—why then are we not simply obedient, listening and hearing in our ears the clear call: Your deliverance draws nigh!”(2)
In this season of Advent we hear the discordant sounds of a strange and drastic story. The church anticipates nothing less than the Lion of Judah in a room of farm animals, the coming of a human rescuer unexpected and unhindered. Mystery itself, mercifully, draws nigh.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Isaiah 40:13.
(2) Luke 2:34-35.
(3) Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” (New York: Collier Books, 1978), 14.
(4) Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, Edwin Robertson Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 93.