Reflecting on the Story of Christmas and on Its Meaning

By Tony Kireopoulos
National Council of Churches (2017)

Let’s face it. Christmas brings some challenges for those who want to proclaim faith in the Son of God born of a virgin surrounded by singing angels and visited by three kings and warmed by soft breathing of barnyard animals and watched over by shepherds all under the light of a star shining directly over the whole scene. Fantastic, movie-worthy visuals, but hardly believable enough to get a serious conversation going with those who ask what the fuss is all about.

Admittedly, the narrative is rather child-like. Stories from 2,000 years ago tend to be that way. In fact, much of the story is probably just that – a story – to explain events that, at the time, would have been beyond the comprehension of most people, and, in subsequent centuries, in need of refinement to capture the evolving articulation of relevant eternal spiritual truths. Indeed, the birth of the Son of God, conceived by the Spirit and incarnate of the Virgin Mary, praised by the host of heaven and worshiped by the mighty and lowly among us, and creating and ruling over the natural laws of the universe, is exactly what we believe in.

How do we get there? How do we get from a fanciful story of a peasant child’s birth to an affirmation that this child is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Savior of the world? How do we get to the understanding that the coming of this child is the answer to all manner of injustice, oppression, hatred, and evil in the world? How do we get to the belief that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:10-11, NRSV)?

In a word, we get there through the seemingly unrelated event of the resurrection. Due to the unprecedented experience of the resurrection after his death some three decades later, the followers of Jesus had to make sense of every other aspect of his life, including his birth. Details, whether factual or inventive, were employed to explain who he was and how he came to be in their midst. Moving backward in time from the empty tomb to the crowded manger:

Resurrection? A revelation of divine glory.
After dying on the cross? A proclamation of the ultimate sacrifice for, and salvation of, all others.
After living among the poor and dispossessed? A witness to genuine love and humanity.
While counseling the wise and the foolish? An affirmation of justice and righteousness.
After growing “in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52)? A mark of family and community responsibility.
After being born in obscurity? A manifestation of the power of humility.

Heavy stuff. And yet, the visuals make the statement we need to convey the sense of it all. Glory, as illustrated by the angels singing their hosannas. Salvation, as shown by the star standing watch over creation. Love, as demonstrated by the parents finding their child a protective bed in a manger. Justice, as brought to light by the kings bowing in adoration. Responsibility, as signaled by the shepherds responding to the heavenly birth announcement. Humility, as revealed by the baby crying in harmony with the soft sounds of the animals.

It’s a story both children and adults can love. And it’s a story we can see. But it’s a story the meaning of which only the faithful can fully grasp. It goes to the heart of who we are as Christians. It’s at the core of our Gospel proclamation that “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). And it speaks to all of us, at Christmas and always.

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