The Creche and the Cross
We love the romance of Christmas. If we can only step away from the commercialism and the pressure to search, buy and distribute, what’s not to love? The precious baby in the manger, the angelic chorus, the humble shepherds descending from their pastures to validate the angels’ testimony with their own eyes, the wise men come from afar to worship a new born king. And in response to the magic of the season, and the magnitude of God’s gift to us, we take delight in giving and sharing. Even the eldest among us have magical memories of childhood dreams, dazzling trees, eagerly awaited treasures and once a year guests. For those of us with the great good fortune to have been raised amidst the beautiful traditions of the church, those memories include caroling, both reverent and joyful, solemn recitations of the Christmas story, candlelight services and live nativities. What’s not to love about Christmas?
The great reformer Martin Luther looms large in the iconography of Christmas. For instance, one tradition has him bringing a fir tree inside and decorating it with candles to simulate the glowing icicles in the snowy forest for his sick daughter. His warm, homespun narration of biblical Christmas stories occupies a central place in the Luther canon to this day. But I am captured by an exceedingly sombre perspective on the Christmas story attributed to Luther. The way of the cross, said Luther, began at the manger in Bethlehem.
Think about it. In the prophetic book of Isaiah we catch a foreboding preview of the fate of God’s anointed one. “Like a root out of dry ground, he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him… But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole… (Isaiah 53:2, 5).
Have you ever wondered why the Holy Family had to make their way from Nazareth in the far north of Palestine to Bethlehem in the south for a “registration” (Luke 2:2) —basically, a census? Jewish Palestine was the site of an active anti-Roman insurgency — the “Zealots” — in the days of Jesus, which culminated in all out war in 66-70 AD. Internal exile is a classic anti-insurgency strategy. Guerillas fight best on their own turf, among people they know and among active supporters; they don’t do so well when they’re displaced. And so the little family – the carpenter and his pregnant wife — traveled on foot, easily a week’s walk over hilly and dangerous roads, to arrive at a city where they knew no one and had no place to stay.
Recently I was in Mexicali in northern Mexico, a sprawling city of a million where the desert winds fill the air with dust, and even the most fastidious homeowners and business people are often defeated by the windblown detritus that collects along roadsides and in their fenced yards and gardens. The theology students I was teaching and the pastors with whom I conferenced were bright and handsome people, with outstanding Christian testimonies. But the setting of the “Dios con Nosotros” (God with Us) Seminary along a stretch of highway lined with salvage yards, tire shops and garages, guarded by thin and grumpy dogs, made me think of the setting of Jesus’ birth. In Luke, chapter 2, we are told they “laid him in a manger”, an animals feed box, in the stable out back, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7). Like the millions of displaced persons — refugees — in today’s world, the holy family had “no place.”
If I were to imagine the Messiah’s birth in Mexicali, I would imagine two young “campesinos,” coming out of the valley in search of work in the “maquiladores”, the foreign-owned factories along the border. The young mother delivers her son amidst the tools and grease and biting cold of an unheated garage, watched only by a nervous father and a high strung guard dog. No midwife attending, much less an obstetrician; no trip to the emergency room like today’s urban poor, much less a delivery room. The night watchman and his drinking buddies come to see. “Have a cervesa,” they say to José.
The Christmas story looks beautiful from a distance. The characters are backlit like a Renaissance painting, and wear crowns of light around their heads. But in reality, it was a hard place for the young couple and their newborn son, a place whose loneliness and challenge prefigured the hard way that Jesus would walk up toward Calvary. There he would hang in agony and disgrace on the occupier’s cross, to absorb and overcome all the evil and malice and brokenness of this sinful world, a world in whose brokenness we are complicit.
Seen in this light, the creche leads straight to the cross. This was the ancient plan of a God both holy and loving. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16), “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world… (Revelation 13:8). No hardship or trial or displacement of ours is beyond his concern and beyond his experience. Nor is it beyond his ability to transfigure and beautify. That’s the real magic of Christmas.
—Dr. David L. Wheeler