By Rev. Justin Smoot
For Wausau Pilot & Review
Christmas images are replete with shepherds and angels, wise men and stars, usually all surrounding the manger. Were you aware that including everything in one scene creates a anachronistic blend of stories?
The story we tend to fall back on is from the Gospel of Luke, especially because, in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Linus recites a portion of it to illustrate the true meaning of Christmas. This account tells us the most about what happened on the night of Jesus’ birth. The angels appear to the shepherds at night, scaring them out of their wits, but leaving them with the image of the swaddled child in a manger. When their hasty journey was over, and they run out into the night with praise on their lips, we have Mary, Joseph, and Jesus left. The Holy Family, surrounded by animals, in the night. A story where hope fulfilled comes to those without power, who are not in any seat of authority. This interruption of our long, restless night and leaving all who witness it overflowing with hope and joy.
Yet, Matthew’s Gospel has a story that, on its own, is just as compelling. It begins with Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, his merciful response, and an angel announcing to him just who this child of Mary’s will be. Skipping any shepherds or angels by night, Matthew brings in the wise men. Gentile, that is non-Jewish, worshipers who recognize the presence of the God of Israel before any of Jesus’ people do. In fact, the star rising in the East, was an indication that even the creation that surrounds us recognized the birth of someone great and important.
This story of the nations coming to recognize the importance of the Christ child, however, is overshadowed by King Herod slaughtering the children in and around Bethlehem two years old and younger. Despite the shock that this event imparts to us, there is the additional revelation that Jesus may have been two years old at the time of the visit. It is one thing to sit with the image of an infant Jesus in Mary’s arms, but quite another to consider a toddler Jesus pulling at the wise men’s beards.
While the Gospel of Mark first shows us Jesus fully grown and ready to go, John’s Gospel circles us back to the moment of creation with, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. … And the word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1). Out of all the images of Christmas, this incarnation of the power of God to create with a word underlies every Manger scene that you see. It is what is present in cloth wrapped child in the manger and in the beard-pulling toddler.
While we have gone far afield from the traditional Christmas imagery, we are not able to see the implication of it all. The presence of God with us is a challenge to how we like to do things. We assume that we are important in the world, but the important were not the ones to first receive the news of God’s presence. We think we are righteous and able to live proper lives, like Joseph, but God’s call challenges our set assumptions, leading us to engage with the world in a new way.
There are folks who do not worship like we do, but like the wise men, they appear to understand God more fully than us and worship God in truth and spirit. When we realize that God is not operating in the way that we want God to operate, like Herod, we rage against the challenge to our own sovereignty, desires, and pride.
Ultimately, there is no need to choose between shepherds and wise men. You could be pedantic and wait until Jan. 6 to place the wise men in the creche, but the differences in narrative serve only to deepen the true message of Christmas.
God is going to be operating in a new mode, challenging the established powers, connecting with those who need God, and becoming present in our world in new and powerful ways. Which, in turn, challenges us to be present with our friends, neighbors, and enemies in the same powerful, transformative, and loving way.
Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.
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