As we sit in this heavy season of Advent, during a weighty era in human history, the hustle, bustle, and frenzied joy all around us can be hard to bear for many.
As we face the reality of systemic brokenness, a fallen world, and human limitations, the good news of “God with us” might ring hollow for more people than we realize.
But Jesus has always been about his Kingdom business of uplifting the weak and lowly. There is an important message in the way he entered the world in poverty and the specific people he called to witness his birth and purification rites.
Every year, I look forward to reading Luke 2 aloud on Christmas morning. The series of vignettes is so poignant…sweet mother Mary, literally bearing the God of the world in her young body; the socially outcast shepherds, listening to a heavenly choir like none other; faithful Simeon, seeing the Holy Spirit’s promises arrive in tiny flesh; humble prophetess Anna, preaching the good news of redemption to Jerusalem.
Each of these image-bearers also bore their own crosses, so to speak. Mary endured the shame of being pregnant and unmarried. She gave birth to her son far away from her home, desperately clinging to the promises the angel Gabriel had made almost a year earlier. I imagine she often doubted, even as her faith was indeed strong. The physical proof of God’s promise could also be proof of her madness—the miraculous conception of Christ is a difficult thing to comprehend.
“…the fact that she was in the lowliest of places, surrounded by the most unlikely of court attendants, confirmed God’s word to her.”
Yet, throughout her physical and emotional hardships, God provided many things for her to “treasure” and “ponder” in her heart. Had she been able to give birth to the King in a palace, the world might have better recognized the truth of her claims. But the fact that she was in the most lowly of places, surrounded by the most unlikely of court attendants, confirmed God’s word to her. This child was different, this child was holy, this child truly was of the God who hears and sees all, even as he interacted with Hagar in the wilderness.
We usually acknowledge the lowly status of the shepherds, but do we really meditate on its significance? The Lord pulled back the veil for them, that they might see the inner workings of the heavenly throne room—an incredible honor, but also a heavy burden. When the music had finally faded, when they were done worshiping in the presence of the tiny King, they went back to their fields, back to their hard labor and outcast status. Heaven had broken in, but like Mary, this did not mean being elevated by the world. It meant experiencing a life-changing event that they would weigh against their everyday existence for the rest of their lives. The strange contrast was proof that the Great Shepherd Adonai was very different—and more caring—than many claimed.
We look at how Simeon was described—“righteous and devout”—and we might make assumptions about his unwavering confidence in God. Yet, he sat in the strange liminal space of longing for the Messiah and longing for death. The Holy Spirit had made it clear that he would one day see the promise fulfilled, but he had no idea when. And he had no idea that finally laying his eyes on the Lord’s anointed would also raise up in him images of hearts being broken, of judgment coming not just on Israel’s enemies but on Israel herself. I often wonder what he thought as he looked upon the infant Jesus and then left the temple. Simeon’s role in Jesus’ purification day is a bittersweet reminder that God’s promises are bound up in the reality of human fragility and death.
And as we think of Anna, with her holy lineage and considerable service in her community and the temple, we realize the sacrifice that ministry requires—the cost of speaking about this Holy Child. Anna worshiped “night and day fasting and praying.” Though she is only briefly mentioned in the Luke 2 narrative, hers is a story of both joy and loss. It was the loss of her husband at a presumably young age which brought her to that moment of glimpsing the fulfillment of centuries of longing. Her own decades of longing since the death of her husband are a testament to how God loves and cares for the vulnerable. Yet, we must wonder—what dreams of her own had died with her young husband? Might she have seen Mary and Joseph and longed for what was denied to her—the chance to treasure her own children in her heart?
Luke 2 is a beautiful chapter, and I think its beauty becomes only more apparent when we really ponder the complex stories of those God called to witness and give testimony to the birth of his son. There are many of us who are struggling to feel happy in this Christmas season, but we shouldn’t have to. While I’m not saying we shouldn’t struggle, I am saying that we shouldn’t feel pressure to measure up to a sanitized, unambiguous version of the Nativity story.
“…we shouldn’t feel pressure to measure up to a sanitized, unambiguous version of the Nativity story.”
The image-bearers who were witnesses to the birth of Jesus were marginalized, vulnerable people. That is who Jesus ordained for his breaking into time and space, not those of high standing and ease. And he calls those of us who are hurting to join Mary and the shepherds in kneeling atop filthy straw to worship the newborn king. He welcomes his people who are not feeling holiday joy to bring ourselves, not in finery, but in everyday, ragged wear, to join the Holy Family, Simeon, and Anna in worshiping at the temple. Not despite our sorrows, but because of them.
For in the end, the tiny “reason for the season,” our lowly King Jesus, was the most humble of them all. He who knew no sin, who was there at the foundation of time, the perfect and eternal triune God—that’s who chose to feel the oppression of sin, to experience the ravages of time, to sit in a lowly estate for the sake of his people. Let us come sit at the feet of Mary and listen to the halting songs of the shepherds. Let us listen to the bittersweet joy and gospel message of Simeon and Anna.
Let us find true peace in knowing that the Son of God is also the Son of Man—he who understands our griefs and brokenness and sits with us in them. He does not ask us to clean ourselves up, to put on a brave face, or to pretend that the world isn’t broken. No, he offers Luke 2 to us as a healing balm and a salve to ease our aching bones and comfort our longing hearts, even as we wait for him to come again and wipe away every tear.