Don’t you just love all of the visuals of the season. The decorated tree. Holly and mistletoe. Images of Santa and his reindeer. Bright lights. Candy cane and gingerbread houses. Gigantic blown up inflatables of the Grinch and Elf on people’s front lawns.
And then there is the nativity. A manger. A mother and father. And the baby.
There’s an almost surreal contrast between the bright and festive visuals of the season… and the solemn and understated visual of the nativity.
There are four Gospels accounts and they all approach the birth of Jesus in different ways. Luke’s account, the one you just heard, is the one we probably know best of all as it gave us the nativity visual. John talks about light coming into darkness. Mark doesn’t mention the birth of Christ at all. And Matthew provides the lineage, tracking from Abraham all the way to Jesus through fourteen generations. I’m thankful I didn’t have to read that one tonight because there are some tough names in there, like Amminidab and Rehoboam. But scholars love that Gospel because it places Jesus in a specific time and place and firmly establishes his roots.
The four Gospels arrive at the birth of Christ differently and I would like to suggest that you and I do as well.
John came to the nativity through visual poetry, as light coming into darkness is a perfect metaphor for God entering into humanity. Matthew came to the nativity with logic and reason, ticking off the generational connection between the Jewish faith he knew and the stunning turn of events resulting in the arrival of a Messiah. Luke appeals to our hearts, showing us a little baby surrounded by his loving parents. And Mark doesn’t get there at all.
How do you come to the nativity?
In my own vivid imagination, I can see the actual scene that night. My son told me recently that he was speaking with a language expert who said that the original text of Luke used phrases that are better translated to “discarded rags and a wooden trough”. The words have been softened a bit through the years to swaddling clothes and a manger. Discarded rags and wooden trough tells you what was really going on – Jesus was born into extreme poverty. Extreme poverty. God, the creator of the universe came to join his own creation in extreme poverty. What does that tell you about our God?
The people there, on the scene that night, all encountered something different when they arrived. Some, like the innkeeper, had no idea what was going in right in front of his eyes. If he had, I assume he would have invited them inside.
The shepherds were drawn in by angels and a brightly shining star. Like the colorful and festive visuals, like the huge inflatable Grinches and Elfs on our front lawns, they may have been taken in by the awe and splendor.
The magi plotted their way to the nativity, using maps, charts, prophecies, and their own intellect.
But Mary and Joseph were there because their lives were touched profoundly; they were vested, fully committed. Mary and Joseph experienced the baby in a uniquely personal way. It changed them forever. Theirs was a true encounter with the Savior.
What do you find when you get to the nativity? What happens when you approach Jesus… which we symbolically and actually do at every single Mass.
Are you here, but like the innkeeper maybe don’t fully grasp, or care, what is unfolding before your eyes? Like the shepherd, are you here for wonder and awe? Like the magi, are you hoping to feed your intellect? Or, like Mary and Joseph, are are you here for an actual encounter? We come here for different reasons.
This is the question of faith. If our faith is about a personal encounter, then it will endure, stand the test of time, and lift us up. That’s because it’s personal, it changes us, and it calls us to commit.
The nativity. Who are you in the visual?