I collect Nativity sets – I think I had twenty-something at last count. I have resin, porcelain, glass, wood, and cloth Nativity sets. The all contain the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. Some have a couple of shepherds and animals. Others also include 3 Magi (well, one has 2 Magi, but I don’t think that was intended). One thing they all have in common is that they are sentimental. They use stock images of the characters to convey the story of the Nativity to us. Mary is always beatific, looking lovingly down at her son in the manger (who do you know who looked that good right after childbirth?). There are a few shepherds looking a little scruffy, to be sure, but then again, we can’t smell them. The Magi look exotic and majestic as they bring their gifts to Jesus (although they almost certainly weren’t in Bethlehem, but visited the family in Nazareth). These Nativity sets are all beautiful and a nice reminder of the fact of Jesus’ coming to earth, but the emotions they evoke are more sentimental than anything else.
When you think of Christmas, what emotions come to your mind? If you are like me, you get “warm fuzzies” about this season – the gifts, visiting with family, the smell of warm gingerbread. We’ve spent the last four weeks immersed in Christmas music and, in this house, making Christmas gifts. Most Christmas movies talk about Christmas being a time of giving and a time of family. You truly have to be a hard-hearted Scrooge (pre-Christmas ghosts) in order to not have some nice positive emotions this time of year.
In reality, though, Christmas is not sentimental, but scandalous. It was a scandal, first, because God humbled (humiliated?) himself enough to actually become like His creation. He went from the perfection of Heaven to the difficult life of first century Palestine – and as a member of a working class/poor family, not the nobility or clergy as you might expect. In no other religion is there a claim that God became human. (Sure, the ancient Greeks did tell some stories of gods disguising themselves as humans, but that was generally just to cause mischief.) Other religions admonish their adherents to work hard to earn their god’s favor. Christianity is different, though, in that God became human. He started as a little baby and grew up into a man. He did all the things that humans do – including the bodily functions that “nice people” don’t talk about in public (although, as a physician, I think I’m exempt from that clause). And, while humanity may be the pinnacle of God’s creation, we are still a huge step down.
Some have tried to say that God didn’t actually become human; that it was too much to expect that God would become like us; that it was a scandal. The Council of Nicea took up the question in 325AD and concluded that “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Even today, groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Jesus was a created being and, thus, inferior to God. Yes, God becoming human was scandalous.
The Incarnation was scandalous also because it was not how the Jews pictured the Messiah coming. The first-century Jews in Palestine were living under Roman rule with Herod the Great as their puppet. The Jews expected that the Messiah would come and liberate them from their oppression. Jesus was totally not what they expected. When he preached a gospel of love and peace and sacrifice, the hearers were scandalized! This could not be the Messiah who would save them from Roman Rule! But God had a different plan – one that involved Jesus paying for our sins once and for all. Not only that, Jesus showed us how we could live; He is the ultimate example. Without Jesus (God incarnate), we would still be lost in our sins. The Incarnation was God’s greatest gift to humanity.
While we can enjoy the sentimental feelings of this season, we also need to remember the scandal of the Incarnation. God became human to pay for our sins and to show us how to live. God blew everyone’s expectations out of the water to give us what we so desperately need. As you see the sweet baby in the manger, remember that He is God become human just for us.