Christmas Contradictions: Glory In The Lowly
It has always seemed to me that life is better measured by the breaths we do not take, than by the breaths we do take.
In other words, I believe that we discover the true meaning of life in those moments when, quite literally, our breath is taken away; those times which are so amazing and so surprising that we gasp in response. Those are the moments that make life meaningful. Christmas is such a time. It is a fantastic time, when shepherds out on hillsides hear symphonies by angels, and the Son of God is put to bed in an animal’s feed box, and kings cross desert wastelands pursuing a wandering star. Christmas is a time full of the things which cannot be … and are.
I suppose then, it is not at all surprising that in the midst of such astonishing circumstances, Mary should find herself quite speechless. Did you ever think about that? When the angel came and announced the coming of Christ, Mary spoke with the angel. When Mary went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, she listened to Elizabeth, but then she spoke on her own; and even sang a song, The Magnificat. But when the moment the birth came, no word of Mary’s is recorded in scripture. It simply says that she pondered all these things in her heart. She had no syllables to wrap around the experience of that first Christmas; little wonder. And I think as she lay there in that dark, damp, dinghy place, she must have thought how strange it is that God in all of His glory would reveal Himself in such lowly circumstances.
I think Mary pondered the lowliness of God’s arrival.
An inn was not a very pretentious place in the 1st century—just a block-paved courtyard with some stalls around it. They provided no food; only fodder for the animals, and the fire at which you might cook whatever food you might happen to bring along. There was no evidence that Joseph and Mary had any; far from being a royal palace. And the swaddling clothes? Just a square cloth with a diagonal band going off to one side—the baby was placed in the midst of the square. It was folded over, and the band was wrapped ’round and ’round to secure the cloth—far from being royal robes. To be sure, God, in all of His glory arrived on this earth under the most lowly of circumstances.
We read in the news these days of the great Hubble Telescope—that enormous telescope which hangs in outer space and focuses upon the distant points of the universe. That telescope can pick up the light of a star so far away that one hour of focusing that light upon a photographic plate is required to make even the faintest impression. That telescope has tremendous capacities for focus, but it is nothing compared to the way everything that God was and is was focused down into that lowly child in a manger.
If He had to come, why did he have to come in such a lowly way? Well, there was a European king who used to make his servants anxious because he would take off his royal robes and then, dressed as a peasant, would go out amongst the people. His servants worried that something might happen to them. He said: “I must do it. I cannot rule my people unless I know how they live.” And so God laid aside glory and came so lowly.
I have often wondered if, as the Son of God stood out on a balcony and counted the cost of coming down to the earth, I wonder if as He prepared to focus Himself down into this world of poverty and need—I wonder if He hesitated as He prepared to “empty Himself” that’s what Paul says, He emptied Himself. It was like pouring out everything that is in a pitcher. If we had been there at that moment, would we have seen Him pause and hold back for a moment. I do not think so. No. I think He looked down, saw it all, including the cross, but then plunged down into the arms of this desperately waiting world. He stooped so low for us, tiny bits of humanity were thrown into the scale of the infinite, but of sufficient importance to God to send His Son down, down, down to the earth. I think that Mary looked at her child, looked at her surroundings, and pondered in her heart the lowliness of God’s arrival.
And I think she pondered the lowliness of His audience.
The shepherds, of course, were the first ones to hear—and there’s a great message in that fact—let me explain. Mary would have missed music that night. You see, it was the custom in those days that when a child was born, all the neighbors would gather around and play musical instruments and sing. That’s what would have happened if Mary had been in her hometown of Nazareth when the baby was born. But she wasn’t at home, she was in Bethlehem where no one knew them. There would have been no music, but then the word came from shepherds that there had been music. There had in fact been a cosmic serenade out on the hills, and the shepherds heard it first. Of course, they were the lowliest of people in those days. They were considered to be beneath the proper people in society. The Pharisees had labeled six professions as being unworthy. One of the six was being a shepherd. The kinds of things they had to do in the course of their work made it impossible for them to go into the temple or the holy places, where they were considered to be ritually and religiously unclean. They had no religious standing, no political standing, no social standing. They were the lowest people in society, and God sought them first. Of course, they didn’t understand it all. They couldn’t grasp the full truth and the full impact of what they saw and heard, but that’s the point—they didn’t have to understand it all. Celcius, a bitter antagonist of the Christian faith, wrote these words some 1500 years ago: “If you would be a Christian, then be ignorant. If you would be a Christian, then be stupid. If you would be a Christian, then be uninformed. If you would be a Christian, then be one of those not worthy of the attention of your betters.” That’s one time that Celcius wrote more wisely than he knew, for to his word, I would say “Amen”. You see, my friends, you don’t have to be a PhD to come to the manger. You just have to be like a shepherd. They were living proof that what Paul said is true … that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. That God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. That God chose that which is low and despised; things that are not to shame the things that are.
In other words, you don’t have to understand it all. At the center of the Gospel is the truth that the knowledge of God is not essentially an intellectual experience; it is an experience of the heart. You don’t have to be a high-powered intellect; you don’t have to be a captain of industry; you don’t have to be on the social register; you don’t have to have a fat bank account to come to Christ. You just have to be like a lowly shepherd, or like the way I feel now.
You see I look at the creation around me, and I don’t feel particularly self-confident. I read about the immensities of space and I realize that my life is only the flaming of a match against eternity’s darkness. I see the awesome flow of humanity stored, and I realize that my work in the name of Jesus is like dropping a pebble in the ocean. I am aware of the colossal problems which buffet the nations of this earth, and I realize that all I have is a single vote—one shouted voice against the cacophony of the world. I even look at my inner life and see how far short I have fallen from the glory of God, but Christmas speaks to all of that. Christmas is the announcement that you and I, low and insignificant though we may be, are worth enough to God for Him to come to us in Jesus Christ. The fact that He came first to shepherds reminds us that we are of infinite value to God; we are made in his image. We are the objects of His love. When you confront that in your life, all you can do is be quiet … and, like Mary, ponder in your heart the lowliness of God’s audience.
So … Christmas is, I think, a time for us to be quiet. No matter how we may be surrounded with clatter and glitter, it is a time when our hearts are held in hush. I think that’s because of the gentleness, the humility, the lowliness of a God who dares to come to us with a little baby cradled in His arms. To put it all another way, the best way to see Christmas is on your knees.