Journey of the Magi

For me, Christmas is pretty much over on December 26th. By then, I am ready to see the tree taken down and the decorations put back in their boxes. But for others, the celebration continues into January with the observation of the feast of the epiphany. It’s also sometimes called the feast of the theophany or the feast of the three kings. It celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. This year, those who observe it will do so on January 6th.

The Magi are a mystery in the Christmas narrative. They appear suddenly and soon disappear, like the star that drew them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. They trouble Herod with a question: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). Matthew does not tell us their names or say how many made the journey. When he describes their point of origin, it is only in general terms. His most detailed description is the term Magi itself, which designated a wise man, astrologer, or magician. What is evident is that the Magi were foreigners. They were the kind of people the apostle Paul would later describe as “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

The Magi were indeed foreigners to the promise, but they were not ignorant of it. The answer given by the priests and teachers of the law to their question indicates that the Magi were not looking for an ordinary royal birth. Based on the information the Magi supplied, the religious leaders concluded that they were looking for the Messiah (Matt. 2:5). The Magi stopped at Jerusalem first because they knew it was Israel’s seat of power spiritually as well as politically.

The Magi came seeking information only to discover that they already knew more about what God was doing than Israel’s king or its priests. The religious leaders, for their part, seem to have been caught unaware by the news. When the Magi showed up on their doorstep asking for information, the chief priests and teachers of the law were able to pinpoint the location of His birth from Scripture. But instead of taking the lead in locating the Messiah, they have nothing more to say. At least for the time being.

Herod, on the other hand, was disturbed. He saw the new king as a personal threat (Matt. 2:9). Herod was an insecure ruler famous for his jealousy and cruelty. Although he urged the Magi to search carefully for the child, promising to follow later and pay him homage, it was merely a ploy (Matt. 2:9). Herod’s real intent was murder. But God thwarted Herod’s plan by warning the Magi in a dream. He also sent an angel to Joseph to tell him to flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:12–14). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escaped, but the sons of Bethlehem did not. When Herod realized that the Magi had outwitted him, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity aged two and under to be killed (Matt. 2:16).

Matthew says that the Bethlehem massacre fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18; cf. Jer. 31:15). This quote is proof that God was not taken by surprise. He did not need a contingency plan when Herod and the religious leaders refused to cooperate with His agenda. Indeed, Jeremiah’s prophecy indicates that they were playing into God’s hands even in their resistance.

Does this part of the story have a happy ending or not? It is hard for us to tell. Herod’s bloody rage introduces a somber note into the Christmas narrative, reminding us that not all is starlight and wonder. There is also blood. Bethlehem’s massacre is evidence of the two kingdoms at work in the narrative, just as they are in the world. One is a realm of light and life. The other is a kingdom of darkness and death. However, the death of the sons of Bethlehem was more than the aftershock of Herod’s jealous anger. It foreshadowed a greater casualty that was yet to come. This child, the object of Herod’s rage, escapes. But only for the moment. Before Jesus has worked any miracle or spoken a word, the cross is already looming on His horizon. A stanza in a popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” alludes to this:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

breathes a life of gathering gloom;

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The battle that swirled around Jesus in infancy will follow Him into adulthood. The religious leaders who were silent when Herod attempted to kill Jesus by slaying the children of Bethlehem will eventually speak up and demand that Pontius Pilate finish the job. An angel will come to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but not to deliver Him from death. This man will be handed over to His enemies “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge,” and with the help of wicked men, those enemies will put Him to death by nailing Him to a cross (Acts 2:23).

The good news, which is also the gospel, is that this is not how the story ends. Peter tells the rest of the tale in his sermon on the day of Pentecost: “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). It is often said that Jesus was born to die, but this is not exactly right. Jesus was born to die for us and then to live again.

God is not responsible for evil but He is not a hostage to it either.

It’s true that Herod’s brutality introduces a discordant note into the Christmas story. Still, it also provides us with a needed reality check that serves as a good reminder now that the holiday is over. We exhaust ourselves in our attempt to create the perfect atmosphere during Christmas. We tell ourselves that we are only doing this to make the holiday pleasant. But is it possible that we are instead trying to convince ourselves that we can have a different kind of life? We want the fairy tale life we have seen in holiday movies or the ideal life we think we should have had. Why can’t our family be nicer and our friends friendlier? Is it too much to ask that we might have the kind of life we have always dreamed of for at least one day a year? We find our attempts to get into the season’s spirit spoiled by the ruts and hollows that mar the landscape of our lives. Those ruts and hollows will follow us into the new year. An empty chair at the table will remind us how death or illness has become an uninvited guest in our home. Simple boredom will creep in. The pandemic will continue to trouble us, at least for a while.

The journey of redemption includes evil as well as good. This is not only true of the stories we read in the Bible; it is true in our daily life. God is not responsible for the evil, but the story of the Magi reminds us that He is not a hostage to it either. The Bible reveals that redemption is a drama unfolding along two storylines. The first begins with Adam and descends into disobedience and decay. The second storyline issues from God’s promise in the garden that the woman’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). These two intersect at the place where the Magi’s quest finally comes to rest. After leaving Herod, the Magi were overjoyed to discover that the star had reappeared. They followed it until they came to the house where the child was. When they saw Jesus, they bowed down and worshipped. The journey of the Magi ends where ours begins.

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REMYTHOLOGIZING CHRISTMAS: Why it’s Better to Wonder as We Wander

It’s that time of year when we tell the story of Christ’s Nativity. Then someone writes an article, publishes a book, or posts an exposé on social media telling us that everything we thought we knew about the old, old story is wrong. Yesterday, I saw one in my newsfeed shouting that Jesus’ family wasn’t poor after all. Joseph was a skilled tradesman who could afford to rent the stable because the inn was full. According to the retelling, it turns out that the stable wasn’t as rude and bare as the songs say. It was clean and private. I think it had wifi too.

Here is the way the new story goes. It was not in the bleak midwinter when “frosty wind made moan” but sometime in the spring. The star was not actually a star but a comet or a conjunction of planets or maybe swamp gas. The shepherds were not poor outcasts but more like gentlemen farmers who were well-heeled and highly thought of by the people. The three kings of the orient weren’t three in number and probably weren’t from the orient either. After a while, we begin to wonder if we can recognize the story at all.

There is a long tradition of this sort of thing going back before the days of the Internet. Some of the earliest deconstruction of the Christmas narrative was done by opponents of Christianity, like the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus. He claimed that Jesus was not born of a virgin but resulted from Mary’s adulterous affair with a Roman soldier. Of course, not all the demythologizing of the Nativity springs from a desire to debunk. Often, it is an attempt to clarify vague or absent details from the Gospels’ accounts.

Admittedly, there are some elements to the story, as we have heard and sung it, that are traditional, if not legendary. “The New Testament provides no precise information concerning the year, the month, or the day of the Nativity,” New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce points out. He notes that it is unlikely that the Magi brought their gifts to the stable, observing that they must have arrived after Jesus was presented at the temple. Otherwise, Joseph and Mary would not have been justified in sacrificing a pair of doves, the offering that Leviticus 12:8 prescribes for the poor who cannot afford a lamb (cf. Luke 2:22–24). The Gospels don’t say how many Magi there were. The number three probably comes from Matthew’s mention that they brought three gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11). All of which raises two questions. First, why did such details creep into our telling of the story in the first place? And, second, what is wrong with correcting such errors?

As to the first question, the legendary content arose for various reasons. Primarily, it results from a well-intentioned desire to fill in the gaps. Although the Gospels included historical details, like the time frame during which Caesar Augustus issued his census decree or the fact that the Magi came from the east, their accounts are marvelously spare. There is much we would like to know that they don’t say. Sometimes, creative license motivates us to fill in the missing details. We want to tell this story the way we tell other stories. What do the characters look like? What are their names? So we draw inferences, seek clues, or simply make things up. Usually, the added details are small, like the number of the Magi. Occasionally, there may even be a warrant in the text for our addition. We tie the star in Numbers 24:17 to the rulers who come to the light in Isaiah 60:3 and conclude that the Magi were kings. We read of three gifts and decide they must have been three in number.

The second question is harder to answer. Is there anything wrong with demythologizing the Christmas narrative? I think the answer must be both no and yes. On the one hand, who can criticize a desire to maintain the integrity of the biblical account as it appears in the Scriptures? “Do not go beyond what is written,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:6. He is talking about pride, but the warning also seems applicable here. It is always a bad idea to try and improve the biblical text. Unfortunately, our tendency to demythologize the Christmas narrative is not always driven by a passion for historical integrity or textual accuracy. Sometimes it is merely the academic equivalent to clickbait. It is an unfortunate fact of academic life that young scholars who are trying to make their bones must say something startling to get attention and often a job.

The same is true for people like me, who write books and post blogs. The rule is publish or perish for both parties, and the best way to get published is by saying something that will amaze and even agitate. In biblical studies, this often becomes a “new” understanding that is supposed to restore the original meaning to the old text. Yet, for some reason, the new “original” meaning always seems to overthrow the traditional view while somehow miraculously corresponding to modern thinking. What God always intended somehow always turns out to be what we already think or value.

This clamor for attention combined with the temptation to co-opt the biblical narrative for our own agenda has a debilitating effect on the Christmas story. Its effect upon us as worshippers is even worse. It leaves us skeptical and cynical—the modern compulsion to demythologize leeches the wonder from the Nativity story. What is more, what we are doing is not even true demythologizing. We are merely replacing old speculations with new ones.

On the other hand, saying we ought to remythologize the Christmas story might be viewed as its own kind of clickbait. It may sound like I suggest that we cast history aside and turn to legend. I do not. I am using myth in the sense that G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis did to refer to real events that echo the themes of the myths of old. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology,” Lewis wrote. “We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there–it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.” I will grant there is some danger in using a term like myth in connection with the historical fact of Christ’s birth. Maybe we cannot see beyond the ordinary sense of the word. If so, then throw it out. The point is not the vocabulary we use to speak of these events but how we see them.

How should we see them? I think G. K. Chesterton provides a good answer when he describes the approach of Thomas Aquinas to the relationship between Revelation and Reason. “His argument for Revelation is not an argument against Reason; but it is an argument for Revelation,” Chesterton observes. “The conclusion he draws from it is that men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner; or most men would not receive them at all.”

Men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner or most men would not receive them at all.

G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s language captures the essence of the Bible’s account of Christ’s birth. It is moral truth delivered in a miraculous manner. The Nativity of Christ is not a myth. It is a miracle. The gaps in historical detail make little difference. It hardly matters whether there were three Magi or thirty. It does not even matter whether we know the actual date when Christ was born. All we need to know is made clear enough by the account we have, even though it is spare at points. That is, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law” (Gal. 5:4–5).

At that point, God didn’t just enter a story. He entered history as a human being by taking on flesh and being born of a virgin. His coming was announced with signs. Angels proclaimed his arrival to shepherds who saw Him lying in the manger. Magi traveled from the east following a star to pay homage to Him and present gifts. Herod, taken by surprise by His sudden arrival, plotted to murder the child and slaughtered the children of Bethlehem. Joseph took the child and His mother and escaped to Egypt and after the death of Herod returned to their home in Nazareth. Scripture records these facts, along with the wonder that accompanied them. Where the Christmas story is concerned, we do not need to be afraid of the scrutiny of legitimate history. Nor do we need to turn to legend to stoke our wonder. The biblical account requires neither demythologizing nor embellishing. It is perfect as it stands.

What Mary Knew

When I was a boy I thought I heard angels sing. I was in my bedroom at the time and the sound seemed to come from a distance. I was perplexed by what I heard. When I opened the bedroom window the music grew louder. I thought I could see a heavenly glow beyond the rooftop of the house next door. The fact that Christmas was approaching was the clincher for me. It had to be a heavenly choir of angels jubilating over the birth of the Christ child. There could be no other explanation.

Actually, it turns out that there was a more mundane explanation for the phenomenon. Someone was selling Christmas trees over on the next block. They had strung the lot with colored lights. The music I heard was only a phonograph connected to a loudspeaker. So much for my heavenly visitation. But I have often thought back on that brief moment of transcendence when I was certain I heard the angels sing on high.

When Gabriel appeared to Mary, there was no burst of song but a herald’s announcement. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” the angel said. “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Artists have pictured this as a transcendent moment for Mary but Luke paints it differently. Mary is not moved to bliss by the angel’s words but to perplexity. She was troubled by what she heard. Perhaps she heard in them an echo of the angel’s greeting to Gideon as he threshed grain in a cistern and brooded about Israel’s defeat. In the Bible, this sort of promise always seems to be the precursor to an especially difficult assignment.

Or perhaps it was the ascription of God’s special favor that surprised Mary. It is true that Mary was from a royal line. But beyond that, there does not seem to have been much else about her life that made it singularly blessed. She was just a young girl betrothed to the local carpenter. Neither of them was rich. They do not seem to have had any grandiose plans for themselves. Until now there was no reason to believe that their life together would be any different from any other couple in their village.

The details the angel provides reveal the singular favor that will be bestowed upon Mary. “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus,” the angel commanded. “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 forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:30-33).

Yet instead of reassurance, the angel’s promise only served to trouble Mary further. “How will this be,” Mary replied, “since I am a virgin?” She was of childbearing age. She was already engaged. How did she think it would happen? Mary’s question makes sense only if we understand the angel to be saying that this conception will be unusual. No man will father this child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” the angel promised. “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Still, among all the remarkable words exchanged in this encounter, the most astonishing were those of Mary herself.“I am the Lord’s servant,” she replied after she had heard all these things. “May it be to me as you have said.” Did Mary know what she was agreeing to do? She knew at least this much: she would become pregnant before she was married and the only explanation she could give for this was that God was the baby’s father. She could not have concocted a more unlikely explanation if she had tried. If Mary was anxious about Joseph’s reaction, she gave no indication of it. After all, why should she be anxious? She knew what kind of man Joseph was. Scripture reveals that he was a man of faith, quick to do what he knew to be God’s will.

One dimension of the favor spoken of by the angel when he appeared to Mary was her distinctive role in the drama of redemption. Long before she was born, the judgment declared to Satan in the Garden of Eden foreshadowed Mary’s entrance into the story: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Mary is the virgin spoken of in Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Matt. 1:23). Her place in the Nativity story is so crucial that it has led some to claim that there would be no Jesus without Mary. Although well-meaning, such rhetoric is, at best, unfortunate. Mary was not necessary to Jesus’ existence. Long before Mary was born or the world created, Jesus already was. According to John 1:1, He was “with God” and He “was God.”

Mary’s distinctive role lay in the fact that she was the vessel through whom our Lord took to Himself a human nature.

Mary’s distinctive role lay in the fact that she was the vessel through whom our Lord took to Himself a human nature. As the second-century church leader Ignatius of Antioch put it in his letter to the church of Smyrna, Jesus is “truly of the family of David with respect to his human descent” and also “Son of God with respect to the divine will and power” (Smyr. 1:1).7 Or, as he wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, there is a sense in which it can be said that Jesus is both “from Mary” and “from God” (Eph. 7:2).8

Yet as important as Mary is to the Christmas story, her presence on the biblical stage is strangely brief. After the nativity account, she reappears only a few times. On one occasion, when Jesus was twelve years old, she chastened Jesus for disappearing during a family visit to Jerusalem. After a three-day search, Mary and Joseph found Him in the temple courts listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Luke 2:48 describes the reaction: “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’” Eighteen years later, we find Mary at the wedding in Cana, urging Jesus to do something when the host runs out of wine ( John 2:3). Then again, after Jesus begins his public ministry, she shows up outside the house, where a crowd has gathered to hear Him teach. Mary is seemingly rebuffed both times (John 2:4; Mark 3:34–35; cf. Matt. 12:46–50).

The next time we see her, Mary is standing at the foot of the cross near the beloved disciple John. According to John 19:26–27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”

After this, Mary more or less disappears from view. She has a brief cameo at the beginning of the book of Acts, which merely says that she was present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:4). She does not seem to be mentioned in the New Testament epistles at all unless she was “the chosen lady” to whom John addressed his second epistle (2 John 1:1).

What, then, are we to think of Mary? As far as Nativity is concerned, she has a starring role. But when it comes to the overall drama that plays out in the four Gospels, she seems more like a bit player and foil. Yet, despite the brevity of her appearances in these accounts, we are left with a definite impression. First, we see that Mary was, first and foremost, a mother. When Mary shows up, she behaves toward Jesus like any mother would toward her son. Mary was a woman of deep faith. Her song of praise in Luke 1:46–55, known as the Magnificat, is biblically literate, theologically sophisticated, and poetically rich. What is more, this faith was combined with great courage. She had to understand the social implications of conceiving a child without a human father. Despite this, she raises no objections about the cost to her reputation, how it will affect her impending marriage to Joseph, or about the implications it will have on their life together. Mary asks only how it will happen (Luke 1:34).

These days Christmas music seems to like to portray Mary as fragile and uncertain. In one song she asks God to “hold her together” and wants to know if He wonders whether “a wiser one” should have taken her place. Another song runs through a list of theological affirmations about the incarnation and asks, “Mary, did you know?” The answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second is yes. Mary was probably young, but I do not think she was fragile. Her actions reveal that she was brave, persistent, and obedient. Certainly, there is much that Mary could not have known about what it would mean to give birth to God’s son. The one thing Mary did know was that she was the Lord’s servant.

Christmas Traveler-free ebook by John Koessler

For some years now, one of the ways I have observed the Christmas season is by writing. I began with poems, the occasional story, then turned to essays. Over the last few years, I have been publishing these on my blog. This year I decided to collect the material into a small book and send it to my friends as a Christmas greeting. The idea occurred to me as I listened to Christmas music composed by Jazz musician Alfred Burt who, observing a tradition begun by his father, sent an original Christmas carol each year to family and friends. As someone who reads my blog, perhaps you will enjoy it too. You can download it from the link on my homepage below.

Keeping the Cross in View

According to Charles Dickens, after being visited by three spirits, Ebenezer Scrooge was a changed man. Terrified by the specter of his death, Scrooge made this solemn promise to the ghost of Christmas yet to come: “I will honor Christmas, and try to keep it all the year.” At the close of his tale, Dickens says that Ebenezer Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge.”

For some reason, we never talk this way about Easter. When Christmas comes around, we remind ourselves of the need to observe it all year like old Scrooge. We celebrate the Christmas spirit, but we seem to know nothing about the Spirit of Easter. Christmas is magical. But Easter is just a memory and a somber one at that. Christmas, even though it comes in winter, is all warmth and firelight. Easter arrives with spring, and like spring comes with a different quality of light. It is colder somehow.

If you doubt this, look at how artists have depicted each event down through the centuries. Their portraits of the nativity have a coziness that Easter lacks. We are charmed by the sight of the mother and babe, surrounded by animals and rough shepherds who bend their knees in adoration. The artistic vision of Easter is more spare somehow. Our observance of the two holidays also reflects the difference. Christmas announces its approach for weeks with colored lights, a mountain of gifts, and endless parties. We are sad to see it go. Contrast this with Easter, who arrives suddenly with a sheepish grin bearing only a ham and a few jellied candies.

Part of our problem is that we tend to separate the Nativity and Easter in our thinking. We know they are both moves in the larger story of Christ’s life. But to us, each has its own distinct atmosphere. In the church’s message, however, they are inseparably linked. Each was necessary to accomplish Christ’s purpose. If we remove one of them, they both cease to have meaning. Galatians 4:4–5 tells us that: “. . . when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law. . . .” The birth of Christ sets the stage for Good Friday. Without the incarnation, the work of the cross would be impossible. To redeem, Christ must first die for our sins. And to die for our sins, He must first be made like us.

Christ’s true humanity was necessary to our salvation because Jesus came not merely as a role model but primarily as a replacement. He came to die on our behalf as the only sacrifice that God will accept for sin. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” But Christ’s birth and death were not enough. The nativity did indeed set the stage for Good Friday. Yet Good Friday without Easter is as meaningless as Christmas without the cross. Paul describes the blunt necessity for Christ’s resurrection this way in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “. . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” The resurrection is proof of Christ’s divinity. It is also evidence that God has accepted Christ’s payment on our behalf.

Still, the cross has a unique place in the church’s proclamation of the gospel and the believer’s life. Indeed, we might say that the key to living the Christian life is the secret of keeping the cross in view. Paul told the Corinthians that he had not come to them with eloquence or human wisdom as he proclaimed to them the testimony about God: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Even though Paul’s gospel included the birth of Christ and the resurrection, he labeled it “the message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18).

The cross has a unique place in the believer’s life.

More than this, Paul assigned the cross of Christ a critical role in enabling believers to live the Christian life. He pointed to the cross as God’s solution for the guilt of sin and its practice. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin,” he explains in Romans 6:6–7. The cross is a historical event that exerts a kind of power in the believer’s life. But the power of the cross does not work on its own. It is the Holy Spirit who brings the cross to bear on our sinful nature. We do not overcome the pull of sin by relying on willpower but something far more potent. Those who have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” also “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Through the cross and the Spirit’s enablement, we find a permanent solution to the problem of sin. It begins with forgiveness. The blood of Christ shed on the cross pays the penalty for all our sins. The word that we sometimes use to describe this is atonement. Atonement is a payment that satisfies God’s wrath, and the only price that God will accept for sin is the one He has made Himself. Christ “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). The result is a change in our relationship with God and a change in our nature. Instead of being God’s enemies, we become His friends and children. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, Christ “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” We also become different people, or as Scripture puts it, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:16). The Holy Spirit empowers those who receive Christ’s righteousness, enabling them to put that righteousness into practice. The word that we use to describe this aspect of the Christian life is sanctification. It is God’s work of making us holy.

How, then, do we keep the cross in view? It starts with something that the apostle Paul calls “reckoning” ourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God (Rom. 6:11–12). This is an act of faith, where we take God at His word and accept as true all that He has said about our relationship to sin. Keeping the cross in view also calls for a response whenever we find ourselves drawn by the desire of sin. This response involves a conscious turning away from sin and a corresponding turn to Christ. Instead of allowing sin to rule over us as it once did, we offer every part of ourselves to God as an instrument of righteousness (Rom. 6:13). Paul describes this as a kind of death. He tells us to: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). This is simply the act of saying no to ourselves and our impulses where sin is concerned. It is an act that assumes that Christ’s death has made a difference in us. We really can say no.

The Dickensian world of Scrooge appeals to us because it suggests that all we need to deal with sin are good intentions and noble effort. This message appeals to our human vanity and spiritual pride. But painful experience has shown us otherwise. Such an approach only leads to the kind of seasonal change that Dickens envisions in his tale. It is not deliverance from sin, but at best, a brief holiday. The cross promises something more. Here is the great difference between Charles Dickens’ notion of “keeping Christmas” and the Bible’s message of new life in Christ. For Dickens, Jesus Christ was primarily a moral example. To “keep Christmas” was to remember His goodness and try to imitate it. The forces at work in Ebenezer Scrooge’s fictional transformation are mostly guilt and fear. But the change that comes through the gospel operates on a very different level. It is a real, not a fictional change, that works through faith and hope instead of guilt and fear.

Gospel transformation begins with faith in Christ’s death and resurrection as the basis for our hope that we can live a different kind of life. Nowhere in Scripture does Christ tell us to “keep Christmas.” He doesn’t tell us to “keep Easter” either. What He does tell us to do is to remember the cross. This is not something we only do on Good Friday. Nor is it limited to the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We keep the cross in view every time we say “yes” to God and “no” to sin.

Christmas Traveler: Why the Nativity is About the Cross

In this year of COVID-19, the governor of my state has asked everyone to stay home for Christmas. To be honest, it feels strange. For many, Christmas is a time for traveling. The same was true of the first Christmas. The Gospel narratives of Christ’s birth are crowded with travelers. Zechariah, the priest, travels to Jerusalem to burn incense before the Lord and is struck with dumb surprise when the angel announces that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son in their old age. Mary travels too, heading for the hills to visit her relative, Elizabeth. Then to Bethlehem with Joseph to give birth to the miracle child conceived by the Holy Spirit. Shepherds hurry into the night, leaving their flock behind to find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Magi travel from the east by caravan to lay their gifts before the newborn king of the Jews, while Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. Everybody in the Christmas story, it seems, is on the road.

Yet of all the travelers in the Christmas narrative, none comes as far as Jesus. His is a journey that is measured not in miles but position. “Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe,” an old hymn says. The opening of John’s Gospel clarifies that the change was even more profound than the hymn-writer imagines. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John declares (John 1:14). The theologians describe this in literal terms as the incarnation, the enfleshing of the Word of God. At the incarnation, Jesus Christ took a human nature to Himself without ceasing to be divine.

If the theologians express the literal sense of John’s theology with this language, the 17th-century poet Richard Crashaw captures John’s lyrical warmth when he writes,

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!

Eternity shut in a span.

Summer to winter, day in night,

Heaven in earth, and God in man.

The poet’s phrase “eternity shut in a span” measures the distance between heaven’s throne and Bethlehem’s manger. There was both an addition and a subtraction in the incarnation. Jesus took to Himself a human nature that He previously did not possess. The babe of Bethlehem was a real infant, as helpless and dependent as any other. At that moment, the creator of all things became both actor and the one acted upon. The eternal Word was conceived by God, born of a virgin, and laid in a manger. The Son of God became the child of Mary. By this act, Jesus laid aside something as well. In Philippians 2:7 the apostle Paul says that Jesus, who was God by nature, “made Himself nothing” at the incarnation. The Greek text says that Christ “emptied” Himself.

We should not see this as an abdication. Jesus did not cease to be divine when He took on flesh and blood. Instead, this was more of a refusal. He refused to cling to the rights and prerogatives that belonged to Him because of His divinity. As one translation of Philippians 2:6 puts it, Jesus did not consider equality with God “something to be used to his own advantage.” When He was made in human likeness, Jesus took up the nature of a servant. Paul’s language in these verses is deliberate. Confinement to human form was more than a symbolic statement for Jesus. True humanity was essential for the specific task that Jesus came to perform. When Jesus was “found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8). Jesus took on flesh so that He could die.

That death is the linchpin of the theology of the incarnation. Remove it, and the story of Christ’s nativity becomes immeasurably reduced, as does the rest of His life and ministry. Without His death on the cross, Jesus is only another wagging finger urging us to attempt what we cannot attain. Such a Christ may be a moral example, but He is no savior. Likewise, the resurrection of Jesus is a necessary complement to His obedience to the point of death. Without the resurrection, Jesus is merely another martyr in a long line of martyrs, and the gospel is no longer the gospel. The apostle does indeed set Jesus before us as an example when he tells us to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). But this is only because he presents Jesus as our savior first, the one who died for our sins and rose again for our justification. Those who do not recognize Christ as their savior cannot take Him as their example. Jesus is always a gift before He is a model.

Jesus had to be born to die. Without that death, there would be no remedy for our sin. Jesus had to be raised from the dead to make us alive to God. It is only by that resurrection that we can follow Christ’s example. This means that the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb are inseparable. Remove one, and the rest must fall away as well. It also means that the trajectory of our spiritual journey mirrors that of Jesus Christ. We move from physical birth to the cross to the empty tomb and then to glory. Only those who have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection can follow His descent into humility. All of this rests on the fulcrum of the incarnation. Without it, none of the rest would be possible. By submitting to incarnation, Jesus Christ not only placed Himself at the Father’s disposal, but He also made Himself dependent upon the Father to complete His task.

These days it is common to hear people talk about the “magic” of Christmas. Those who speak this way are usually just talking about ambiance. Christmas movies and television commercials imply that celebrating Christmas will produce a transcendent experience. Broken relationships will suddenly mend. Prodigals will come home. The broken-hearted find love at last, and all the ills of the world will be mended, at least for one day. We are foolish enough to believe this false vision, failing to recognize that what they are really selling is an atmosphere, along with the products that create it. We have mistaken the rhetoric of marketing for mystery.

What is truly missing from our Christmas is not magic but memory. We do not need more atmosphere but an understanding of the incarnation. We have forgotten what the original story was all about. In many cases, we have removed the original story altogether. We have tried to improve it by garnishing it with tinsel and lights or have reduced the original narrative to such a degree that all we have left is a string of sentimental images.

If we wish to know the wonder of Christmas, we will need to recapture a vision of “eternity shut in a span.”  To do that, we must go beyond the manger. We need to travel the rest of the way with Jesus. From the manger to the cross to the tomb, and beyond. We will need to remember that Jesus did not enter the fairy tale world of soft snow and gossamer-winged angels that we sing about in carols and see on Christmas cards. He came to a  world of hard roads and even harsher realities. The path our Lord traveled was not one that went from glory to glory. It was primarily, as Paul reminds us, a path of downward mobility.

Jesus began His life as a fugitive and ended it as a political prisoner. Kings and priests sought His death. His followers frequently misunderstood Him and, in His last hours, finally abandoned Him. In other words, Jesus came into our world, a broken world filled with disappointments. He came like us, in flesh and blood, yet without sin. Jesus took on flesh, knowing full well all that it would entail. Confinement to the limits of human nature. Restraint in the exercise of His divine power. And ultimately, in the Garden of Gethsemane, a refusal from His Heavenly Father to let Him escape the cup of suffering. Jesus did not do these things out of necessity but voluntarily.  Nor did He do them to create a magical holiday season. Jesus did them, as the old Creed declares, for us, and for our salvation. Thanks be to God.

Nativity Poem

Do not be afraid

the angel said

in such commanding tone

that we almost believed

he could put to flight

our fears with a Word.

And all we like sheep

each one scattering

in his own direction

with the sheep themselves

skipping and bleating

like waves dancing

on the water.

We were sore afraid

but not so afraid

that we could not leave

those few sheep

in the desert

and hurry off.

What do you think

we found when

we got to Bethlehem?

Nothing but a child

wrapped in rags

and lying in a manger.

And His shy mother

so patient with

our blushing and fumbling

until she was distracted

by the child’s cry.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

A few months ago, my next-door neighbor told me that the house down the street is haunted. She used to own the place and claims she saw the spirit who inhabits it more than once. She says that it is the ghost of a little boy from the early 1900s, with bobbed hair and knickers, who occasionally appears in the kitchen. I’m not sure what to make of her claim, but I do believe that many of us are haunted. Especially at this time of year. Not by literal ghosts but by memories. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, we are visited by the flickering memories of Christmases that are now gone.

Scrooge’s visit was a kind of reality check, but ours is something else. Ours is a reconstruction. We sort through the fragments of past experience scene by scene, the way an archaeologist sifts through the debris of an ancient civilization. Instead of bits of pottery, we handle shards of memory. Some are broken and fragmentary. These recollections are tinted by the soft glow of nostalgia, a spice that is sweet as powdered sugar but can leave a bitter aftertaste. The recollection of others is more spectral in form. They are haunted in the classic sense, as they contemplate the remains of things that have gone to ruin. The memory of someone whose space is empty casts a shadow on the table. The memory of a past offense or some horror puts a nightmare cast on their recollection.

When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was: “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. They aim to disturb. Those memories that trade in nostalgia want to make us jealous. They show us shadows of things that never were and leave us longing for a world we never knew. Those whose trade is fear want to bring us to despair. They show us a world of sin but one without a savior. The pain they bring to mind is real, but it is not the whole story. Hidden from those haunted memories is the hand of God moving in the shadows.

When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was. “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. 

We prefer our holiday season to be serene and magical. We are hoping for a moment of transcendence. We deck the halls and trim the tree. We bake and buy and then settle back to wait. But all too often, our experience is the opposite. Instead of Christmas magic, we get the critical mother-in-law who thinks their child could have done better. The kids like their toys but only for a day or two. The dysfunction that has stalked the family for the previous eleven months refuses to take a vacation. Somebody we love gets sick. Another dies. Or we discover that the real spoiler is our own heart, which leads us on as the day approaches, and then suddenly turns a cold shoulder after it finally arrives.

Before you dismiss me as a curmudgeon (perhaps it is already too late), let me say that I have been a devotee of Christmas for as long as I can remember. Christmas has captivated me since childhood. I can feel its approach as soon as the winds turn to chill in the fall. I start listening to Christmas carols on November 1 and it is only with effort that I manage to restrain myself from starting earlier. I smile every time I watch Scrooge’s gleeful repentance on Christmas morning and weep when George Bailey learns that no man is a failure who has friends. But I must tell you that Christmas has let me down every time. By the time the 26th arrives, I am done. The tree and all its decorations can go back to their place. They seem awkward and out of place to me, as wizened and worn out as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.

I won’t deny that there are moments of transcendence during the holiday season: The peal of the trumpet during the resurrection sequence in Handel’s Messiah. The sight of wind driven clouds flying across the moon at night. The constellation glitter of the snow as it falls. But these are only momentary stabs of joy. These sensations, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, disappear as soon as we become aware of them and cannot be manufactured. Play the same song. Visit the same spot. Try to reproduce the circumstances exactly, and you will only be disappointed. But this is, I think, what we are often trying to do during the Christmas season. We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.

We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.

Unfortunately, the fallen world conspires against us. If it is not the harsh croak of misfortune that bursts in and interrupts our revels, it is misfortune’s plainer sister boredom. We go looking for the sublime only to find the usual. The enchanted world we hoped to create for ourselves proves to be a tangle of colored lights and a pasteboard tableau of the three kings with a camel. The choir is singing off-key, but it really wouldn’t matter if they weren’t, because we hate the song anyway.

Yet we may have more in common with the true Christmas experience than we realize. After all, Jesus didn’t descend from heaven in a cloud of glory. He came into the world by water and blood, as all infants do. There were signs and wonders that marked His birth. But there was also misunderstanding, jealousy, and terror. Joseph considered divorcing Mary. Herod slew all the children of Bethlehem that were two years old or younger. The Holy Family fled for their lives and relocated to Egypt for a time. The version of these events that we see on our Christmas cards or in our imagination is a sanitized one. There is no hard traveling, no fear, and no violence. Our version is a kind of fairy tale, the sort we might read to our children at night to lull them to sleep.

What I am trying to say is that the world Jesus entered was far more like the world we know than the one we fantasize about, whether those fantasies are good or bad. When the Apostle John describes Christ’s entrance into the drama of redemption in Revelation 12, we see a very different portrait. Admittedly, John’s narrative is oblique and far-reaching. He speaks in visions and goes beyond the nativity stories of the Gospels. Yet John’s wild images make clear what the Gospels’  more narrow and literal depictions confirm. The world that the Son of God entered, when He took human form and was born in Bethlehem, was not a tranquil one. Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels. He entered a world of blood and tears. Jesus came to a habitation of dragons (Revelation 12:4). The angels who announced His arrival were not plump cheeked cherubs or fragile seraphs with gossamer wings. They were an armed troop who announced the arrival of the Lord of Heaven with a shout of victory.

Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with remembering the past. Remembrance is a sacred discipline in the Christian faith. When Jesus handed the disciples the bread and the cup, He told them to eat and drink in remembrance of Him. But I think we should approach our memories, especially at this time of year, with a degree of skepticism. Enjoy the vision, but don’t try to recreate it. Appreciate the memory the way you would a passing fragrance and then let it dissolve into mist the way that all dreams do.

The same is true of those memories that terrify us. They appear suddenly, like Lazarus from the tomb, still wrapped in their grave-clothes. But unlike Lazarus, they carry the smell of the grave and the clench of fear. They rear up like a shadow cast upon the wall by a guttering candle and want us to believe that they still have the power to threaten us. But they are only ghosts and echoes.

Despite our expectations, Jesus did not come into this world to create a magical Christmas season. His sights were set on the cross. The ghosts in Dickens’ tale came to help Scrooge understand his past, but Jesus came to purchase our redemption. To do this, He not only entered into our suffering; Jesus took our sin upon Himself. “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son,” Galatians 4:4–5, says, “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”

“Who is He in yonder stall, at whose feet the shepherds fall?” the old carol asks. He is the Ancient of Days, the God of the Past. He is the God of your past. This is the God who made the light and who seeks you out in dark places. He is the God who knows your dreams and meets you in your disappointments. But more than this, He is the God who saves. “’Tis the Lord, O wondrous story! ’Tis the Lord, the King of glory!’ At His feet we humbly fall, Crown Him, crown Him Lord of all!”

While Shepherds Watched their Flocks

Annunciation to the Shepherds

Two shepherds were seated before a small fire. They alternated between making small talk and sitting in silence, like those who are long acquainted. There beyond the glowing rim of the firelight, the flock was huddled in congregation. The men too were huddled against the chill of night, wearing wool and leaning into the flames.

High above, the wheeling stars winked in and out, flickering like candles as they calculated the number of Abraham’s offspring. In the black distance beyond the flock, a night bird cried out in indignation, surprised by a wolf who had come near. He eyed the sheep hungrily. He had been watching them for two nights now. But when another figure appeared unexpectedly at the edge of the shepherd’s camp, the wolf turned and fled. 

There had been no shuffle of approaching footsteps, only a sudden flare of light as if one of them had stirred the fire. The stranger stepped across the threshold, and the shepherds shrank back in alarm. One of them scrabbled for his staff and raised it in defense as the other cowered. But the stranger only laughed good-naturedly.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I come bearing good news. It is news of a great joy for all the people. This very day in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

The shepherds looked at one another and then back at the figure, who by now was lit so brightly that they had to shade their eyes to see him. The light radiated from him the way heat does when it shimmers off the rocks in the desert sun. ”This will be a sign to you,” he continued.  “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

By now the whole field was lit so that the tiny camp looked like a city in flames. In its glow, the shepherds realized that the angel was not alone. There was a whole troop with him, standing in ranks. “Glory to God in the highest” they shouted. They sounded like an army cheering their captain after some victory. “And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!” The cry made the shepherds want to cheer too.

Then as if in response to some command, the angel leaped into the air and the rest of the host followed suit. In the space of a breath, they were gone. The winking stars appeared again. There was a pop as sparks flew up from their fire. And the shepherds were left staring into the night sky.

 “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about,” one of them said. The other grunted his assent. The flock had scattered because of the commotion. Their plaintive bleating could be heard in the distance. But the two men paid them no mind. They hurried off into the night, leaving their staffs behind.

Joseph’s Dream

Joseph was awake, just as he had been every night since Mary told him the news. He shook his head at the recollection, just as he had every time he thought about it. Mary was pregnant. He thought he knew her. He was sure he knew her. How could he have been so wrong?

Joseph considered getting out of bed and trying to work but it was late. The noise would surely wake the neighbors. Besides, he couldn’t concentrate. He had tried all day, only to realize that he was staring and shaking his head. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. Joseph was grateful for the distraction. But in a moment it all came rushing back. Mary came back to Nazareth after visiting relatives in the hill country of Judah for three months. The trip had been sudden, without explanation. Joseph hadn’t thought much about it at the time. Perhaps Mary had gone to see her cousin Elizabeth for advice about marriage.

When Mary returned, she was a different woman. She went away a virgin and came home pregnant. Of course, Joseph refused to accept it when he was told. How could he do otherwise? But Mary insisted. She did not blush. “An angel appeared to me,” she explained with a smile. Joseph could tell that she expected him to believe her explanation. “The angel told me that the Holy Spirit would come upon me and the power of the Most High would overshadow me,” she said. “And he did! The child I am carrying is the son of God!”

Joseph shook his head again at the memory. It wasn’t possible. How could it be? He was sure there was some other explanation. A drunken Roman soldier who overpowered Mary and took advantage of her on the road, perhaps. Maybe Mary had concocted this unbelievable story out of fear that Joseph would call off their betrothal. The pregnancy could not have been voluntary. Mary had been forced. He was sure of it. She must have been! The story she told seemed like something only a lunatic would say. 

Joseph had said nothing to her at the time. He was afraid to. He simply turned on his heel and walked out the door. He spent the rest of the day working furiously. As if work could somehow make everything go away. He desperately wanted things to go back to the way they were before Mary’s trip. But things would never be the same between them again. How could they? People in the village were beginning to talk. There were awkward questions from some of his customers. Mary was starting to show.

The dog barked again. Then it yelped. Maybe some sleeping householder had thrown a rock to frighten it away, Joseph thought. The thought made him uncomfortable. He was a man of faith. He knew what the Rabbi would say. Joseph would have to divorce Mary. He also knew what kind of punishment the Law of Moses prescribed for Mary’s situation. Unless she could prove that the thing had happened against her will, Mary could be liable to the death penalty. A public divorce would lead to a trial and if Mary persisted with this ridiculous story of hers a public trial was likely to lead to death by stoning.

People would say that it served her right. He supposed that he should be angry. Maybe even pleased that such a fate awaited her. But he only felt helpless. He did not want to see Mary disgraced publically. He did not want her to die. So Joseph made his decision. He would divorce Mary. But quietly. There would be no trial. No public disgrace. He didn’t know how the two of them could continue to live in the same village. Maybe he would move. He would think about that later. 

The decision made, Joseph lay in the dark as sleep finally overtook him. For the first time since he had heard the news, he felt calm. A night breeze stole in through the window, carrying with it the scent from a vagrant patch of daffodils which had sprung up nearby. Only then did Joseph notice the figure standing at the foot of his bed.

Joseph sensed more than saw him. It was shadow upon shadow. Joseph felt his presence but could not make out his face or form. Joseph tried to move but it was as if all his limbs were paralyzed. He tried to speak. But could not make a sound. Was someone there or not? Then the figure spoke. His voice was reassuring as if he had overheard Joseph’s tortured deliberation. “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” he said. “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 the arguments Joseph had already marshaled against such an explanation rose up within him. He would have interrupted if he could speak. But he was still frozen in place. Unable to move. Unable to utter a sound.

As though the angel heard Joseph’s unspoken objection, he said, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’” His tone was patient but firm. The kind one might use when explaining some simple fact to a child. The sort that a teacher uses to remind a student of something they should already know. At the mention of the child’s name, Joseph understood. The child that is to be born will be called “God with us.” Suddenly it all seemed so clear to him. And so obvious. Why hadn’t he seen it before? 

At once Joseph was awake and alert. His heart felt light, like one who has awakened after a long illness and for the first time in weeks is feeling whole. Joseph leaped from his bed and dressed in haste, the first rose light of dawn just beginning to glimmer on the horizon. His plan had been to go to the Rabbi at first light. But instead, he flew down the path in the opposite direction. Towards Mary’s house. His steps set the dog to barking again. He could hear someone calling out Mary’s name over and over. Joseph laughed when he recognized the voice as his own.