Word was made flesh that first Christmas

By 
  • December 20, 2012

The Gospels of Mark and John provide no account of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew’s Gospel gives an attenuated account, but it is from the physician-disciple, Luke, that we get the birth narrative that has come to dominate Christian iconography for 20 centuries.

The story is so familiar we can easily miss its wonder: the Holy Family’s exhausting journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the angels, the shepherds, the stable birth and the wise men, all narrated in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

There are three particular phrases in Luke’s account that fairly vibrate with authenticity and poignancy.

The first is “In those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…” Always, everywhere, there are government decrees. This particular one was for the relatively innocuous twin purposes of census and taxation. How many decrees, before and since, have sent people packing on needless and dangerous journeys. And it is not just tinpot dictators but sometimes duly elected officials who dispatch people from their homes to a far country where no one knows their name.

Of the fathomless depths of human misery, how much is attributable to Caesar? Who knows? But it is to government decree that we owe the wrenching phrase “displaced person,” which is how Luke portrays the Holy Family on that first Christmas — displaced persons abandoned by everyone but God.

The second phrase comes after the Holy Family arrived in Bethlehem: “(Mary) laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” When one reads this, the first response may be indignation. That dastardly innkeeper — how dare he turn them away! No doubt if there had been an Occupy Judea movement, protests would have been made, a tent city might have sprung up outside the inn and we would have heard talk about the one per cent and the 99 per cent.

The birth of Christ occurs in anonymity, outside the city, outside respectability, in a manger of hay or straw. Now, flash forward about three decades to Christ’s crucifixion: another barren place, Golgotha, “the place of a skull,” outside respectability, outside the city.

There was no room for the birth of Christ in a Judean inn and there seems little room for Christ in contemporary Canada. He has been tossed out of the schools and the public square is kept resolutely secular.

Christians maintain that on that first Christmas God clothed Himself in the lineaments of human flesh. Yet it is difficult to catch a glimpse of Him today. Not at the United Nations nor in the corridors of power. Certainly not in television studios or the echoing halls of academia. He is not to be found seated among the powerful.

Back then it was shepherds, “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (in the King James language) who first realized something unprecedented was happening. Not many shepherds, then or since, acquire celebrity status, and certainly not these. Their first reaction was fear. Then fear gave way to curiosity, and they decided to go to Bethlehem “…to see this thing which has come to pass.” And what did they find? Not Caesar’s laurel crown but a baby.

The third tingling phrase in Luke’s account is found in chapter one. It’s a phrase that tries to make sense of all that will follow, to answer the shepherd’s question before it was posed: “Through the tender mercy of our God whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.”

This is the biblical definition of the Incarnation. Many books and treatises clutter the shelves of theological libraries seeking to explain this phrase, but there it is, the actual biblical definition.

It may be that dates and details are a bit off. Perhaps the three wise men who came were more or less than three (although in the absence of a Judean affirmative action program, the modernist contention that it was actually three women seems a bit far-fetched!). But the message transcends detail. The message is that at a specified point in human history, God became man, took upon Himself human flesh, so that man might more intimately relate himself to God.

So what did happen that first Christmas night? Well, it is not St. Luke but St. John who gives the answer that I find most satisfying: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

That is good news. May the presence of the incarnate Word bring all of us a Christmas filled with joy.

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