The nativity is a familiar scene for most at Christmas—especially for readers of this magazine. But Robin Raymond sets out to colour in the hidden details. What he finds is a dangerous, extraordinary—and sometimes bizarre—story.
I was settling into my seat on a plane the other day when a little voice piped up behind me, ‘Silent night, holy night’. An excited three-year-old was swaying in her seat, happily singing. She knew all the words, of course. And why wouldn’t she? Christmas is deeply embedded in our culture. We ‘know’ the Christmas story. We repeat it every year. Yet, the writers who told the original story filled it with meaning and colour that (not being first century Jews) we often don’t see. These details add grit, substance, and bring the nativity vividly to life.
We usually pick up the story with an angel visiting a young woman named Mary, to tell her that God has chosen her to have a baby.
In ancient Mediterranean culture—especially Greek and Roman culture —if you were introducing a king, there was always some story about how they were related way, way back to a god. It does give some prestige to be able to say, ‘well my great-great-grandad is the guy who makes lightning’.
This was, in many ways, the Greco-Roman equivalent of ‘once upon a time’ (you know what you’re going to get). But the writers Matthew and Luke flip the whole thing on its head.
The hearers would have expected a ‘long time ago’ story about a mythic half-god, half-human creature, and ancient people from royal families behaving like characters from a superhero movie. Instead, the writers spend time pointing to repeated references across scripture—starting from the first verses of Genesis—to show this was both the fulfilment of God’s promises and a real, fully human, helpless baby born to real, poor and unnoticed people who behave in unlikely ways.
Some of the people were even still alive when the story was written. Luke seems to have talked to Mary herself or someone close to her. And, in Luke, we read one of those often missed moments that brings home the reality of the story.
Mary is engaged to a labourer or carpenter named Joseph, when the angel tells her she’s going to get pregnant with a baby—not Joseph’s—who will be God’s chosen messiah.
Mary’s response? ‘ “I am the Lord’s servant”, Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled” ’ (Luke 1:38). It’s a simple phrase, yet for people at the time this would have been seen as an extraordinary response.
In Jewish law, if an engaged woman was found to have willingly slept with someone who wasn’t her future husband she was to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:20–27).
Even in the unlikely event that Joseph, Mary’s family and her entire community made the choice to be lenient on the stoning, Mary’s response was still radical.
Joseph, we know, was minded to divorce Mary—something he would have been expected to do as an upright guy who kept the law. Without a husband who had a steady job, Mary would have been reliant on her shamed family, or the generosity of others, in an area—Galilee—where the Romans had taken over the money-making food-producing farms, and reduced most of the population to poverty.
The outcomes for Mary on saying ‘yes’ to the angel were death, poverty and shame, extreme poverty and shame, or ...a miracle. Mary shows remarkable, even outrageous, faith by saying ‘yes’ to God.
Then God steps in through another angel, to convince Joseph to take on the child. The angel is clear about why Joseph should go against everything in his culture and beliefs and face ridicule and possible shunning from everyone he knew. This is a child sent from God, ‘… and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).
The name Joshua—Yeshua in Hebrew, Jesus in Greek—was the sixth most common boys’ name in the Roman province of Palestine at the time. The equivalent of calling a child James (the sixth most popular boys’ name last year).
The name was popular because Joshua means ‘God saves’. Parents gave it to their children as a reminder of their God-sent leader Joshua, who led the people from 40 years of wandering in the desert into the land God had promised them. It was also a reminder of the promise in scripture that God would send another—God’s even greater messiah—to save them from their sins.
The angel's message was a mind-blowing moment—this is not just another child, but the child: ‘You are to give him the name Jesus [Joshua] because he will save his people from their sins’.
Mary and Joseph then head for Bethlehem. Where—struggling to find a place to stay—they are forced to undergo the already highly dangerous process of giving birth in a room usually used to house animals. Mary, as a good mother at the time would, wraps her child in strips of cloth to keep him warm and protected. She is then forced to do something no ‘good’ mother would do. In an act that shows her poverty and lack of options at the time, she places her child in the animals’ food trough.
Just settled, the new family was interrupted by some very unexpected visitors: they were shepherds, babbling that they’ve been told by angels that God’s promised saviour is there in Bethlehem. They weren’t family, or the respected prophets who for centuries had been the witnesses to announce God’s news—but poor labourers in an isolated backblock, who had just abandoned their jobs and run off into this small rural village. Unsurprisingly, people were shocked when they started telling everyone what had happened—as you would be, if some bloke from a shearing gang started running around saying he’d seen angels and found God.
After that, things seems to settle. But anything from two months to almost two years later, the family are visited by magoi (in Greek)—magicians or holy men from a far-off land.
If the shepherds are unexpected, the visit of wise men is a shocking and dangerous moment. Here we have eastern mystics turning up in Jerusalem, following a star and looking for a king.
It is possible these men were combining their own beliefs with knowledge from the many Jewish communities that had been embedded across the old Babylonian lands for hundreds of years.
This combination of knowledge probably meant they believed the star showed an important leader was to be born as major changes were about to happen—possibly even the end of the world. Naturally, they wanted to find this king and show their respect and worship.
Their arrival in Jerusalem would have been an exotic and confronting sight. Jewish culture was built on keeping itself holy—literally meaning ‘set apart’, untainted by pagan gods.
Tangling with foreigners and their gods had got the Jewish people exiled from God's promised land and, later, under Roman occupation. Magicians or astrologers were even worse. The Torah was clear what you do with them—you stone them.
These were also quite probably powerful, revered men in their own lands and seen as representatives of their ruler.
This was particularly awkward for King Herod. He had spent a huge amount of money rebuilding the temple. His great legacy was to be the restoration of God’s rightful home among his people.
Herod was also one of the most notoriously cruel kings of his day, a villain who seems straight from a movie script. He rose from nothing to become king through a combination of luck and a determination to stop at nothing. Now old, sick and paranoid, he'd already had three of his sons, and at least one of his wives, killed out of fear they were plotting to take his throne.
Then here come these powerful mystics, probably from somewhere in the neighbouring Parthian empire, looking for a king. Parthia had previously backed one of Herod’s rivals (and more legitimate claimants) for the throne, and he’d only survived the brutal three-year war with the backing of Rome.
This was worrying for Herod and his people, who had been through enough war and bloodshed without a new claimant to the throne.
The magi then, having asked for directions, set off for Bethlehem to give Jesus gifts and worship. It is worth noting their directions came from the religious leaders of the day, who—dedicated to reading God’s words over and over for a sign of the coming messiah—are quickly able to point them to Bethlehem. But they miss seeing the real messiah.
The magi are the equivalent today of an Islamic imam asking church leaders about what’s in the Bible. Their arrival shows, even at the start of Jesus’ life, that God’s salvation is for everyone.
The magi’s gifts also mark another sign from Scripture that Jesus is the promised saviour. Isaiah 60 describes nations and kings coming to ‘your radiance’, bringing gold and frankincense, while Psalm 70 talks about people from far off nations bringing gold.
Meanwhile, Herod—king of God’s chosen people—decides massacring a dozen babies in a small rural village is a small price to pay to keep his throne. And Jesus' family is forced to flee for their lives, unable to return home until Herod is dead.
As we colour in the Christmas story, we see a cast of very different characters from across society, behaving in contrasting or unexpected ways.
The respectable, powerful religious leaders sitting in the synagogue in their pristine clothes that mark their role, studying their texts for the coming Messiah.
Foreign followers of an apparently evil religion moved to march across deserts and dangerous roads, not knowing how far they will have to travel, because they, too, have been searching and seen a sign.
Rural, peasant shepherds offered the opportunity to witness and announce the moment that will change history. They risk their livelihoods to go and find a newborn in an animal’s feeding bowl.
Herod desperately clinging to power as God sends his son as a baby, to a poor and powerless family—a family arriving homeless in Bethlehem, and then a refugee family as they leave.
It is all too easy here to raise the obvious parallels to reactions today to poor, displaced Middle Eastern families fleeing persecution by rulers intent on hanging on to power by any means. But all too hard to ask questions about our own reaction to jobless, homeless, teen mums raising babies in garages, cars or overcrowded houses.
Finally, we have Joseph—giving up the life and reputation he had built, adopting another’s child when this would mean becoming a social outcast. A young family fleeing into the unknown. And we have Mary—facing death, poverty, exclusion and losing the security for her and her unborn child.
Each person in this story was living in a world crying out for God to send a saviour. As we follow the story, each character is faced with a crucial question.
Is this just another story? Or, as God steps into history —turning this ordinary story into the extraordinary—will they hear and accept?
By Robin Raymond (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 15 December 2018, p7-9 You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.