So it's all over for another year. The stress has very nearly gone. The presents have been opened. The wheelie-bin is full. Most of the turkey has been eaten. And the diet (we remind ourselves) starts tomorrow. Meanwhile the winter holiday continues and we look forward to the year ahead – a year nearer to heaven and nearer to glory. And in the Christian calendar we move from Christmas Day, to Sundays after Christmas and soon into Epiphany and then Lent. The liturgical year is important in that it gives us a framework, a sequence of events, to shape and to mould the faith we profess. Over the years a Christmas prayer I have often used includes these words:
"We confess that we have allowed the most important event in history to become dulled by familiarity ... help us in this act of worship to recapture a sense of wonder, and to discover again the stupendous fact that the Creator of the universe has come to be our Saviour."
That's true, isn't it? That the Creator came to be our Redeemer. That the Saviour has come. That the Word became flesh. That Jesus was truly God and truly man. And yet amidst all the hype and sentimentality we can easily overlook the fact that 'the most important event in history has become dulled by familiarity'. In the gospels we have the birth narratives in Matthew (from Joseph's perspective) and Luke (from Mary's perspective). In the first two chapters of Luke we have part of what he called his 'orderly account' (1:3) of what had taken place. Why was this? So that, with Theophilus, we might know with certainty the things we have been taught (1:4). That we might grasp the truth that God has come to us, that the divine has entered into our world and made himself known to us, and, more amazing, that we can know him too.
1. The Unfolding Narrative
In Luke 1-2 we have the unfolding narrative of the first twelve years of the life of Jesus. The political backdrop included the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus and the half Jewish leader Herod the Great. Herod was a great builder. He built several palaces for himself - both for comfort and security – in Jerusalem and Jericho and high above the Dead Sea at Masada. He built the coastal city of Caesarea (in honour of Caesar Augustus) and the Temple in Jerusalem (to the glory of God).
And in the birth narratives we read much about the importance of the Temple. Zechariah was a priest (1:8ff). Jesus was presented in the Temple and there a sacrifice was offered (2:22ff). Simeon and Anna were both in the Temple precincts (2:25-38) and when he was twelve years old Jesus was again in the Temple (2:46) and later throughout his ministry he was there. Finally, just before his crucifixion, he ended as he had begun, debating with the religious leaders. In the narrative we discover too something about the holy remnant made up of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna. These people were 'upright in the sight of God' (1:6 NIV) and 'righteous and devout' (2:25), who 'were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem' (2:38 NIV). Holy people. Devout people. People of faith who trusted in God. We are touched by the holy piety and simple devotion of Joseph and Mary – of their annual visits to Jerusalem; of the circumcision of Jesus; of their sacrificial offering in the Temple; of their obedience and submission to the proscribed religious customs of the day. People of faith who trusted in God.
Does that, I wonder describe you and me – people of faith who trust in God? Too often our presentation of the Christian faith is far too complicated. Too obtuse. Too much reliant upon our grasp of theology than of our relationship to the Saviour. Too much on what we say rather than on what we do to demonstrate the love of God.
And in the narrative we read of Mary and her encounter with the angel Gabriel; the virginal conception; the birth at Bethlehem, and of their soon to be refugee status in Egypt. And Mary treasured up all of these things and pondered them in her heart (2:19, 51). And what about us as we hear the familiar story? Is it simply a nice story or does it have a more significant meaning? If we are honest, have we 'allowed the most important event in history to become dulled by familiarity'? Part of our response to the birth narrative, should reflect that of Mary. To treasure and to ponder. Much here is mystery and we easily obscure the mystery with the trivia and romance of a stable and hay and animals. We give too much attention to shepherds with their sheep and kings on their camels. And we allow the Christmas-card images and school nativity scenes to determine how we view these things. And sentiment pushes aside significance. Truth is tarnished.
In his hymn 'And can it be' Charles Wesley has the line ''Tis mystery all: the Immortal dies'. Yes, the mystery of the cross; yes, our necessary response to the amazing love of God who died for me. But we need to say and to sing something equally significant at Christmas. Concerning the mystery of the Incarnation, the awareness of the amazing love of God become man, of God with us. As John tells us:
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory ...no one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known" - John 1:14, 18
Have you fully grasped the significance of that truth? Has that realisation come to you, or have you 'allowed the most important event in history to become dulled by familiarity'?
2. The Continuing Disclosure
Beyond the birth of Jesus is the circumcision, the encounter with Simeon and Anna, and the return north to Nazareth. What follows then is part of the narrative that we tend to overlook and even ignore – Luke 2:41-52. Each year the holy family travelled south to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This journey of 80 miles would have taken three to four days. It is more than likely that this was the occasion that marked Jesus' bar mitzvah, when a Jewish boy became a man, 'a son of the covenant'. After the festival, the party of family and friends from Nazareth left Jerusalem. It was safer to travel together. The adults talked and the children played. Some have suggested that the women and children went ahead of the men. There was no reason to think that Jesus was not with Joseph and Mary. But then they missed him at the camp fire. He didn't turn up for meal times. Then panic set in. Had anyone seen him? When had they last seen him? And since he was not travelling with the Nazareth party his parents returned to Jerusalem. They began to make enquiries. They asked people, had they seen a boy who spoke with a Galilean accent? A strong boy who helped his father in the workshop. After sleepless nights they searched for him during the day. Eventually they retraced their steps to the imposing Temple. Perhaps they went there to pray. Certainly to make further enquiries.
The Temple was still being built. But amidst the building site the religious life of the nation continued. Daily sacrifices took place. Rabbis debated the finer points of the law. And then Joseph and Mary spotted Jesus sitting with the law-givers and law-makers. Listening to them, asking them questions, giving them answers. The leaders were amazed and his parents were astonished. Already Jesus had been taught the scriptures at home, at school and in the synagogue; and now he took the opportunity to interact with the religious leaders in the Temple. A peasant boy from the north encountering the learned men from the south. What would Jesus' parents do? What would you have done? Scold him? Clip his ear? Lecture him? Ground him for a month? The first response was probably an embarrassing hug and a heartfelt prayer 'thank God he's safe'. Their immediate reaction is not recorded. But Mary said it all in her question: 'Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress' (v.48).
Jesus' first words are then recorded. Previously others had spoken about him: now he spoke for himself. And his reply is amazing. 'Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house' about my father's business? (v.49). In other words, what a silly question to ask – didn't you know that I would be here? Listening, discussing, asking questions, giving answers? But it was not surprising that they did not grasp what he was saying. That would only be fully understood after his death and resurrection.
Older believers can learn a lot from younger believers. There is often a freshness about their faith in contrast to a faith that has become a mere routine, a convention, a habit and not a reality. Conversely those who are mature in the faith can encourage those who are just beginning. Pointing to the way, testifying to the truth, living the life. So what do we have here? A precocious child soon to be a teenager who knew his own mind? Or the incarnate Son of God who even at this young age was unlike anyone else? With wisdom beyond his years and with some considerable insight and understanding of the things of God.
We don't know when Jesus first realised whom he was. But there must have been a growing self-awareness. One of the church fathers (Cyril of Alexander) helpfully said that 'God the Word gradually manifested his wisdom proportionately to the age which he had attained'. That makes more sense than those who have suggested that his self-realisation took place 18 years later at his baptism. We need to see his baptism as being more of a confirmation when God said: 'You are without doubt my beloved Son'. He was already the Son of God and his baptism confirmed it. The commentator Raymond Brown makes this helpful point:
"Luke is giving us a perceptive theological insight into history: there was a continuity from the infant Jesus ... to the risen Jesus; and when Christian disciples like Mary believed in Jesus as God's Son after the resurrection, they were finding adequate expression for intuitions that had begun long before." - The Birth of the Messiah, 404
I wonder then, have you made that connection? Have you yet discovered the truth and the reality that the baby in the manger, became the man on the cross. Yes, we need to kneel at the cross (for Jesus died to save us); and we need to kneel before the manger (for God became man and dwelt among us and we have begun to see something of his glory).
3. The Awareness of the Divine
'The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth' - John 1:14 NIV
We encounter the living God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ in the gospel narrative – as a baby, as a child, as a youth and as an adult. That's what the Incarnation is all about. Jesus was a real person who was born of the Virgin Mary. God became man and lived among us. He had empathy with mankind. He had been here and had been touched by the plight of men and women. Like us, but sinless. He was divine, and fully human: 'one person in two natures, fully God and fully man'.
In Luke 2 we read that as a child Jesus grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him (v.40). And again 'he grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man' (v.52). He was obedient to his earthly parents and lived with them for the next eighteen years. He grew in human understanding and in divine wisdom. He grew physically and towered spiritually. While 'nothing could be added to his divinity' (Calvin) he grew in his humanity.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was the source of these early narratives, treasured and reflected upon all that had happened (vv.19, 51). Looking back to the angelic visitation, to the virginal conception, to the birth of her first-born, to the visitation of the shepherds, to the encounters with Simeon and Anna and to this particular pilgrimage to Jerusalem. "Mary did not forget. She might not understand, but she remembered." (Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, Leon Morris). The Incarnation was a real event in real time. Not a nice story to provide a warm glow at Christmas time. Not a bit of religion thrown into a secular wintertime festival, insignificant and innocuous.
No doubt the religious teachers in the Temple would have reflected, 'Do you remember the boy from Galilee who came and sat among us listening and asking questions? I wonder what happened to him?' And we need to ask too: Why did he come and what did he do? And what difference has his coming meant for humanity in general and for each one of us in particular? Yes, our Christian faith is rooted and grounded in Christ. Yes, we rightly focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. These two events are central to our faith and to the Christian profession. But alongside the cross and the empty tomb is the animal feeding trough reminding us of his humble birth, and of his Incarnation. Much of this is divine mystery which we will never fully understand this side of heaven, but we can, with Mary, reflect on these things and express them in the words of the Creed:
"We believe that he came down from heaven ... and became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man"