One way of honouring the coming of the Son of God is to set up charming tableau settings for a manger. Before we think about such a scene if we think back to that time I can imagine some of the locals of Jesus day becoming a bit confused. Their first question might well have been how come there is more than one Son of God?
At the very least this would have been a problem for the Roman historians of the day. Son of God was one of the titles given to the emperor Augustus. When the Romans wanted to show how amazingly powerful and totally respected their top leader was they would use terms like the Son of God – but of course they used it to signify the grandeur for a strong military commander and ruler. That being the case, let’s look again at how Luke talks about the birth of Jesus, thinking about what it says about Jesus as the Son of God.
It is almost as if he is rubbing the noses of the Roman supporters by his contrast with the grandeur of the birth of a Roman Emperor or top king. There is of course a sense in which he is using the poetry of the story to get the essence of what he is trying to convey. It is simply not factual reporting. How could it be eye witness reporting when Luke is portraying something that happened 90 years before he set down his version. Yet now is not the time to worry about whether Luke has made a mistake with which census is being reported, or how he knew about the angels and what they said.
Sure a ruler important enough to be called Son of God would be born in a fancy palace of high born parents. Yet this Jesus, Son of God appears to have been born in a shed or cave – and what is more born to an unmarried teenager, in all probability a servant girl. Shortly after the birth we learn that Mary and Joseph are forced to flee as refugees with the baby Jesus. Hardly an auspicious start in life for the Son of God.
Born and laid in a crib or manger. Yes I know we’re used to seeing charming tableau of the scene in shops and in Churches but “charming” is not the word for a manger. In any case the scholars tell us that mangers were typically food troughs attached to the back walls of rural houses, sometimes in a cave or rudimentary shed. Luke might have chosen other things to talk about – but he must really have wanted us to notice the manger bit – because he mentions a manger three times. A manger or a crib is a food trough for animals…… straw? yes – and no doubt other vegetable material but also, dirt, and I guess insects.
And when you look into that manger or crib – what do you imagine you would see on that first Christmas? This morning’s lesson includes the shepherds coming to pay homage – but in passing we might also remember that by tradition other visitors included the wise men.
There is a traditional fable – which comes out of the writing of the early Church. This story concerns the so called three wise men. Yes I know the Bible doesn’t name them or say how many there were, but Christian tradition puts the number at three and gives them the names which according to the 6th century mosaics found at Ravenna in Italy which as you probably already know were: Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar.
There are a number of great stories about the wise men or Magi. The one legend that appeals to me about these three wise men has it that they were actually men of very different ages. Melchior was the very old man, Balthazar was the middle aged one and Caspar was the young wise man. When they arrived at Bethlehem at the cave of the Saviour’s birth, Melchior as the oldest and wisest went in first – and there was this old man to meet him. Melchior immediately felt at home and together they spoke together of memory and the things they had found in life for which they were profoundly grateful. Next in went middle aged Balthazar and he encountered there, not the old man – but a middle-aged man with whom he felt a great bond. There they talked of what it means to have responsibility and how best to exercise leadership. Finally it was the young man’s turn – and what did Caspar find. No old man – no middle-aged man – but a young prophet – and with him the two spoke of reform and the promise of the future.
Then the three wise men gathered outside the cave, talked of what they had seen – then re-entered the cave – this time with the gifts. There they found not an old man, a middle aged man or a young prophet – but simply a 12 day old infant.
Afterwards they puzzled about what it meant – and then they understood. At each stage in life there is a form of the saviour that relates both to age and experience.
The writer and priest William Bausch points out that there should be a better connection between the experience of the wise men and that of ourselves than there is for example between ourselves and with the shepherds in the setting of that first Christmas. The shepherds had it all done for them. An angel went and told the shepherds exactly where to go, and lest they should doubt that he was an angel he had a chorus line of heavenly angels backing him up. This heavenly messenger told them exactly what they would find when they got there – and yes – it was exactly as they expected to find. When they arrived there was even an angel there to confirm they had come to the correct place.
When the shepherds set out home why would they need to have doubts? The whole deal was handed to them on a plate.
Well, I don’t know about you – but for me I don’t find myself as directly led as those shepherds. I constantly need direction. I have doubts and do not always understand what things of faith mean.
I relate better to those struggling Magi – always searching and wondering – in a real world of vindictive Herods – who these days are just as likely to be after our children with false advertising which panders to materialism and greed, in a real world of real conflict, where there is hunger and diseases like AIDS and kwashiorkor, where there is want and lack of justice …. Forget the shepherds with their heavenly choir, these Magi were in the same bewildering type of world we now experience. It would no doubt be great to be like the shepherds with clear angelic guidance so that we might have a clear line of connection to Jesus – and the answer to all our fears including the fears of meaninglessness and even death. Yet that is not my experience and I suspect for some of you, not yours either.
It might be great to be led to an idealized saviour who is all powerful and magic – a ruler who can crush the enemy – and who feels no pain. Yet I find Luke’s version of a vulnerable infant in a world of dangers and surrounded by less than perfect doubting and weak followers to be a much truer picture. If the wisest like the Magi need to seek help in finding this saviour we should be able to identify with that. It does at least mean there is room for our doubts and questions.
We do of course have the choice. We are told constantly we should be mission-shaped church … and with the numbers in the community who clearly find the Church irrelevant we can see why we should be concerned for mission. Yet our mission is hardly likely to have much relevance if it is not grounded in a saviour who is rather than one who might be. Angelic choirs are great for mood and Hollywood escapism. Mission shaped to my way of thinking is mission that faces the real problems in the company of real people and does not try to manufacture a false and separate religious experience and setting.
Just as there is an alternative Son of God to the Roman emperor version we are reminded this Christmas about what might be. The baby is no ordinary baby – and having started life in the most humble of circumstances and being surrounded by difficulties and dangers right up to the end – when Jesus says , “… my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives”. He offers a clear alternative to some very real issues – and his own experiences give his claim an authentic setting.
When we notice the world offers famine, cruelty, aggression, uncertainty, insecurity, interracial tension and intolerance, the Christmas message of peace on Earth has just got to be more than a platitude. The hope is that just as Jesus moved into his neighbourhood with a message that offered the alternative – that those wise enough to seek out an encounter with that same Christ, will in their turn be prepared to offer the same.
Jesus brought a new way of understanding people in their actual situations. We may start by only noticing the manger and perhaps only then a tiny vulnerable baby – but as the baby grew in understanding – so too our understanding can grow. No matter the age of the Magi, the saviour can offer hope because he has been there before us.
I heard recently of a wise engineering professor who asked his students, what is the best thing that can come out of a mine? The answers were predictable. Minerals – like coal, like gold, like tin and so on. The Professor listened, then answered his own question. “ The best thing to come out of a mine is the miner”. This is why we may need to shift our understanding from valuing presents at Christmas – to valuing the actual presence of the other.
The most important step in noticing this Jesus – is to notice that we too must become part of the tableau. It is one thing to passively observe – and as outsiders sing the carols and admire the baby. It is quite a different matter to interact with the one we find in the crib, valuing the same things he valued, and seeing that the peace he talked of will remain an unrealized ideal until there are those to extend the peace on his behalf.
The perspective that finds a place for living relationship is gospel. It is gospel that starts with noticing the crib is more than scenery. It is gospel that discovers the baby and what is more, a baby in an uncomfortable setting – and as the baby grows we too might find an expression for: “… my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives”… our viewpoint growing and developing.