In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
I really love Silent Night, originally in German by Austrian Franz Xaver Gruber. For me, and I suspect many others, it evokes fond childhood memories of Christmas with its lullaby-like tune.
The opening verse depicts a positively serene picture of Christ’s birth. Silent, calm, bright? These adjectives, a joy to sing though they are, bear little resemblance to what I believe childbirth to be like. “Holy Infant so tender and mild” – words which paint a picture starkly unlike the usual shrieking screams of human birth (of both child and mother). But the point of this and subsequent verses is to pronounce that this is no ordinary birth. No, Silent Night tells us that this is the holiest of births, proclaiming Jesus’ deity; God incarnate – “Christ the Saviour is born”.
The Gospel reading is something quite different, ordinary by comparison. We get the backstory of why Mary and Joseph had travelled to Bethlehem and how while there, Mary gave birth in a stable and laid Jesus in a manger. That’s pretty much it.
These two opposing depictions of Christ’s birth illustrate well a paradox the Gospel invites us to enter into. On the one hand, Christ’s birth as something regal, holy and otherworldly, and on the other, Christ’s birth as ordinarily human, in so many ways like every other human birth throughout the ages.
Church traditions throughout history have emphasised Jesus’ deity usually at the cost of recognising and fully embracing his humanity. It’s probably easy to see why, no one alive since the first century has experienced Jesus as an actual flesh and blood person. But to see Jesus as exclusively Godly and otherworldly would be to miss the joy of what Christmas is all about. So this Christmas, let us rejoice that God is not a distant deity, but one who loved the world so much he came to live among us in the fullness and messiness of human vulnerability.
Dear God, This Christmas as we sing of Jesus’ deity, Help us also to receive the gift, Of knowing our saviour in the fullness of his humanity. Amen.
Jonnie Hill is a student at Northern College training for the ministry of Word and Sacraments.