By Linda Rex
December 27, 2020, HOLY FAMILY | CHRISTMAS—A lot of times we include the visiting of the magi from the East in the Christmas story. The wise men followed a star, or angel, to Jerusalem, asked King Herod about the Messiah, and found he was to be born in Bethlehem. Having heard this, they left to find the child in this place. And this is where we encounter the dark side of the Christmas story.
It was significant that these wise men from other nations were seeking out the Messiah, while apparently, the chief priests and elders of the Jews only looked into it when King Herod asked them to. It was tragic that King Herod used the information he was given to have the infants of Bethlehem slaughtered. He didn’t want to risk losing his throne to a messianic upstart. Having been warned ahead of time by an angel, Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped to Egypt, while the infants in Bethlehem were being killed by Herod’s soldiers. There was horrible loss and suffering that was experienced by so many because of Herod’s evil actions. He had no idea that his violent attack upon Jesus in this way predicted what would happen to Jesus as an adult when he died on behalf of all people, young and old.
But let me go back before this event. We often miss an important part of the story when we focus solely on the magi and the genocide in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem with baby Jesus about forty days after he was born. They, as pious Jews, wanted to be obedient to the law of Moses as they understood it. So, they came to Jerusalem to do three things: 1) They offered the sacrifice necessary for Mary’s cleansing after having given birth to a son—forty days after the birth they offered the sacrifice of poor people of two turtledoves or two young pigeons. 2) They paid the redemption price for Mary’s firstborn son, Jesus, of five shekels. 3) And following the example of Hannah in the Old Testament, they presented their son to God for his service. The parents of Jesus, who was born under the law, fulfilled the requirements of the law as they understood them.
What would King Herod have thought if he had known the real Messiah was present in Jerusalem without his knowledge? It wasn’t like Mary and Joseph snuck in and out without anyone noticing. Luke tells about two elderly Jews who took special note of Jesus, acknowledging and proclaiming that he was the expected Messiah. Simeon and Anna were guided by the Spirit to affirm the special anointing which was on the Christ child. Anna celebrated loudly the redemption of Israel through this child. Simeon said that Jesus would be a light to the nations, but would face great opposition and one day Mary would experience the sharp pain of the loss of her son—there would be a dark side to Jesus’ life and ministry. I imagine the prophetic words of these two elders must have created a lot of talk among the people at the temple.
Somehow Mary and Joseph took care of what they felt was needed at the temple and returned to Bethlehem without raising the attention of the authorities or King Herod. We don’t know what they were doing during those first two years in Bethlehem before their flight to Egypt. Perhaps Joseph was doing work as a carpenter and was able to eventually provide them with a house to live in, for that is where the magi found them. In Christ’s story, we find Jesus identifying with a variety of people—working poor, pious Jews, humble shepherds, and in time, endangered refugees hiding in another land. If we look closely, we can see that as an infant and as a child, Jesus experienced the human condition—what people everywhere, in every nation, go through at some time and in some way.
Sometimes people project onto Jesus some fantasy childhood, where nothing ever went wrong and where his circumstances were always ideal. It could not have been easy for Joseph and Mary to drop everything to go to Bethlehem just because the Roman government was doing a census. What did they face due to Mary’s unexplained pregnancy? When they did arrive in Bethlehem, did they endure criticism or rejection from extended family members? When the baby came, did anyone help Mary out or was she left all alone with Joseph? What was it like for Joseph to be the guardian of his adopted son, knowing Jesus would never be fully his own? When Jesus’ parents knew that they had to flee Bethlehem, did their hearts ache for their friends and neighbors who were facing the loss of their children at the hands of the soldiers?
These are human experiences which can be found in nations all over the world among people of a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. When Jesus came as a light to the nations, he did not do so externally to all we are as human beings, but as one of us within our humanity. He entered our human existence, to forge within us a new humanity able to share in his close relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. He did not bring a political redemption, but a spiritual renewal and an ushering in of the age of the Spirit—a time when every human being could participate by faith in Jesus’ life of union and communion with the Father in the Spirit.
The prophet Isaiah celebrated this prophetically, saying:
“I will rejoice greatly in the LORD,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (61:10 NASB).
He spoke of our salvation as something God clothes us with—”garments of salvation” and “a robe of righteousness.” These are not things we create for ourselves—our best efforts never gain us a right relationship with God, nor do they save us from the consequences of our sin and rebellion against God. Nor do they free us from evil, sin, or death. Only God could and did do what was needed in and through his Son. He even went so far as to adopt us into his family—to make us his very own children rather than just merely his servants.
But there was a cost to God’s Son coming into our humanity to bind us in himself to the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit. What those children and families in Bethlehem experienced was the dark side of the coming of God into our humanity—when evil resisted the goodness of God once again, turning the beauty of what God had done for each of us in the Christ child into something horrific and tragic. What Jesus experienced in the wilderness and later on the cross, what he resisted each time he healed someone or delivered them from an evil spirit, was that darkness which from the beginning has resisted and sought to overcome the light of God’s love and life. The reality is that Jesus came and did what only God could do—delivered us from Satan’s hands, freed us from sin and death, and rising from the grave, brought our humanity into a new place in the presence of his Father now and forever.
In our western world today, we often are so comfortable that sometimes we forget what it is like to struggle, suffer, or go without. When a tragedy, violence, or natural disaster occurs, we are faced once again with the reality that we live in a broken world in which evil is still at work. We, in the already/not-yet of God’s kingdom, experience both the blessings of God’s presence and power at work in this world, but also the opposition, oppression, and assaults of the evil one as he opposes every good thing God is trying to do. There is evil at work in this world—but evil is always a parasite on what is good—it has no power that is not derivative. God always and ever has the final word—and this is why we pray, resist Satan and evil, and seek what is good, even when doing so may cost us our life, our financial well-being, or our good standing in the community.
There is a cost to following Jesus. Jesus said anyone who wanted to be his disciple needed to “lay down his life, pick up his cross, and follow” him. The price of doing this is what we may struggle with. But realizing that Jesus went first, and that he includes us in his perfect life of obedience with the Father, can enable us to do the difficult thing. Christ went first—and whatever we do, we do as a participation in his perfect and finished work. This can give us hope and courage when life gets hard, no matter who we are. We are not alone—he is present now and forever by his Spirit—and includes us as adopted children of a loving Father who by his Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are his very own, no matter the circumstances of our lives or the difficulties we face.
Dear Abba, thank you for making us your very own. We look forward to that day when evil, sin, and death are cast into the lake of fire and once and for all removed from our world. In the meantime, hold us close, Abba, and deliver us anew from evil people and the evil one, from the sin which so easily seduces us—we are helpless and hopeless without you. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in our human existence so fully, and for coming to be with us and in us by your Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.
“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:4-7 NASB
See also Luke 2:22–40 and Isaiah 61:10–62:3.