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A Ridiculous Birth

A Ridiculous Birth

When Melba and I toured Israel many years ago, we were a part of a Jewish tour group.  We were the only Christians in a Jewish group that visited both Jewish and Christian sites in the Holy Land.  At first our companions did not suspect that we were Christians because whenever we visited a Jewish site I put on a yarmulke.

One of the Christian sites we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  The guide informed our group that we had arrived at the church in Bethlehem which was built over a cave where Christians believed that Jesus the Messiah was born.  Assuming that all of us were Jewish, one lady muttered as we began to exit the bus, "The Messiah born in a cave--what a ridiculous idea!"

I was bemused by her remark because the birth of the Messiah in a cave is ridiculous.  According to the views of Jews during the era of Second Temple Judaism in the first century, the Messiah would be either a royal descendant of David whom the God of Israel would consider a 'son" (Psalm 2:7) or a heavenly man coming with the clouds (Daniel 7:13-14).  In either case, it would be ridiculous to think that the Messiah of Israel would come as an unknown child born in a cave.

Yet, according to Christian tradition, the Messiah was born not in a castle, but in a cave.  He did not come with the clouds, but he was laid in a manger where animals were usually fed.  In the 4th century Empress Helena claimed that her researchers had located a cave as the site of Jesus' birth based upon a tradition in Palestine, and she ordered the construction of the Church of the Nativity over the cave.  This may be the oldest church building in continuous use in the world.

From our perspective as Christians, the absurdity of the site of Jesus' birth is a sign of divine revelation.  It was a sign of the condescension of the God of Israel to God's people and the world because of the LORD's compassion.  The LORD had chosen to visit God's people in the form of a Messiah whose circumstances were no different from those of the common people.  While Jewish expectations of the Messiah did not anticipate this divine surprise, the entire story of the LORD's relationship with God's people prepared the way for it.

in both the New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition, the theme of God's condescension in stooping down to us to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ is prominent.  In the liturgical language of the primitive Christian hymn in Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus the Messiah is the one who was "in the form of God," but who "emptied himself" by becoming not only human, but also a slave who died on a cross.  In the technical theological language of church doctrine, Jesus the Messiah is the Incarnation of the Second Hypostasis or Person of the Holy Trinity who became a human being and in whom the divine and human natures are united without confusion or division.  In the language of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, where doctrinal ideas are expressed for liturgical usage, Jesus the Messiah is "the only Son of God:"  "For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became truly human."

The purpose of this condescension of God to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is usually understood as a redemption or liberation from the power of sin and death.  However, redemption should be understood as part of God's primary purpose to establish personal communion between God and us.  The Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov observed that the theology of the Incarnation is contained in the conjunction "and" in the creedal phrase "for us and for our salvation."  Communion is God's purpose "for us" in the event of the Incarnation, but enacting this communion also required redemption from sin and death "for our salvation" (cf. The Lamb of God, Eerdmans, 2008, p. 172).

So then, what seems ridiculous is actually marvelous.  The birth of the Messiah in a cave to a poor young woman betrothed to a carpenter is the first sign of the divine condescension of love for our sakes.

This condescension of God to us in Jesus Christ inaugurated nothing less than a cultural revolution wherever the Gospel was received by faith.  It revolutionized our idea of God:  the majesty of God is revealed as the mercy of God.  No longer would God be conceived as the capricious Zeus of popular religion nor as the impersonal, transcendent Good of philosophy.  It revolutionized our idea of ethics:  the purpose of life is revealed in the pattern of Christ's life as service to others rather than as self-aggrandizement.  In particular, Christianity introduced the new virtues of humility and charity into a world where such attitudes and practices had been generally denigrated.

The church's festival of Christmas is the occasion when we re-orient our lives according to the revolution of the Incarnation.  Christmas involves a joy and a task.  The joy is in knowing that God came to be with us so that we may be with God in a divine-human communion of love through faith in Jesus Christ.  The task is to join in solidarity with the wretched of the earth.  The divine condescension of God in a vulnerable child born in a cave and placed in a manger is a sign of God's presence with hungry children, desperate youth, forgotten old people, and all our neighbors who suffer from poverty, homelessness, migration, discrimination, torture, abuse, sickness, grief, and spiritual anguish.  To worship this particular God of the Incarnation is to be united with God in solidarity with others.

We can call this love ridiculous.  In a sense all love is ridiculous if we assume that life is about concupiscence (the ancient Christians' name for lust which is not just disordered sexual desire, but all forms of self-centerred seeking) rather than about communion.  It took a ridiculous event to make visible the love of God for the world That event was the birth of Jesus the Messiah in a cave in Bethlehem.