It still gets me. I’m still overwhelmed. I cannot remember the days before I knew the story, and even now the details seem as though they ought to be mundane, they are so familiar. And yet they are not. They’re ridiculous. Amazing. Brilliant. Unbelievable. Breath-taking.
Forgive me for my incredulity. Perhaps the Christmas story sits in its usual December place with you. Perhaps shepherds and angels and the star waft through the cracks in your hurried soul like the comforting scent of spiced apple cider or gingerbread. They are the shadows of home that rise up this time of year, the “Christmas Spirit” one is generally expected to feel and share. It’s a well-worn story, one that has perhaps grown soft and a little threadbare in your mind, like your favorite pair of slippers or long lost childhood teddy.
Perhaps it would gently lap around the edges of my mind, too, summoned by white lights and French horns, fresh-falling snow and children’s choirs, if not for the fact that lately I’ve been reading through the book of Deuteronomy. For those unfamiliar with Scripture, it’s about as far away from the Christmas story as you can get. Where Matthew and Luke offer cold crisp nights filled with angelic choruses and green pastures of shepherds and their sheep, Deuteronomy practically has sand spilling from the pages, every word dry and nuanced in thirsty shades of brown and yellow. It re-caps the story of Moses and the Israelites after the great Red Sea parting and dramatic escape from Egypt.
What should have been an equally dramatic and subsequent conquering of the Promised Land instead turned into forty years of frustration. A lack of faith on the Israelites’ part resulted in an opportunity for them to re-think their allegiance: would they depend on themselves, or depend on God? He gave them forty years in a desert to figure it out.
In the meantime, He took care of them. He gave them food and water and guidelines for behavior. He spent a lot of time with Moses, discussing matters of state and matters of faith. He laid out the blueprints for both, avoiding generalizations (“be good”) and dealing in specifics (“Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset” Deut. 24:14-15). God’s laws were firm, but fair - no one could be sentenced to death for accidental manslaughter, all debts were forgiven every 50 years, a cloak taken as collateral on a loan must be returned each night to its owner so the cold night air didn’t prevent a good night’s sleep.
It amazes me, the depth of insight He had into human behavior. He drew the boundary lines for each tribe so that there would be no civil wars. Those in positions of religious leadership were placed, financially, at the mercy of their congregants so they could not lord religious power over them (amounts allotted them were set, making it impossible to use guilt or charm for extorting more). If a couple bore no male heir, their daughters had the right to inherit land and flocks in a time when most people groups disregarded women all-together. New grooms were released from military duty during their first year of marriage so that they might stay home and please their brides. The social and political genius of it all staggers me each time I read it. Every need (physical, financial, spiritual and emotional) was accounted for, every human tendency was taken into consideration. It seems God knew His children very well.
Which is what makes Christmas all the more incredible to me. We tend to think of Christmas as the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth. A baby was born, angels sang, shepherds bowed down and everything under the Star shone with a hope the world had not yet known. God’s presence on earth actually began long before. It began in the Garden of Eden when the infinite essence of God first walked among men. He walked among them again in Deuteronomy, speaking with Moses and wandering through the desert camp.
It was there, I imagine, He faced the human condition. I’m sure He was aware of it long before, encountered during the shrouded years before Noah’s flood or along Abraham’s trek from Ur to Canaan, but it is in the windswept, temporary dwellings of a fickle nation somewhere amid the sands of the Sinai Desert that it really hits me. God knew what He was getting Himself into.
The Creator of protons, neutrons, electrons and distant nebulae witnessed first hand all the best and worst of humanity. He didn’t just know what we were like in theory - He KNEW us: the sweat and the smells and the cursing and the laughing and the weariness and the joy and the snoring and the arrogance and the utter rawness of grief. He came face to face with humanity, He was acutely aware of who we are when we are ordinary and who we are when we are bored and angry and irritated, and He still chose to come back at Christmas. As one of us.
That’s insane! That’s a level of goodness and perfection and patience I cannot even begin to fathom. That’s a love deeper and purer than I even know how to know. That’s a wisdom greater than my feeble soul can even breathe vapors of. That God should know our reality so intimately and still find us worth the effort of leaving all that is comfortable and defined by perfection to step into time, passing through a birth canal, taking a first breath laced with the stench of manure, bearing rumors of illegitimacy, growing up as a refugee, always ostracized, always different, always misunderstood - that He would know what was coming and come anyway absolutely leaves me speechless.
There’s a line in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, buried somewhere in the second or third verse that has broken me this Christmas: “Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die”. Born and lived and loved and cried and died clothed with the blessings and cursings of humanity, so that man no more may die. So that I am not limited to a scant number of years on an earth that is sometimes breath-taking and sometimes heart-breaking. So that I can someday shed the blessings and cursings of humanity myself to step out of time and into His home, defined by perfection. With eyes fully open, The King of All that Is laid His glory by, willingly born so that we no more might die.
Keep your mistletoe and Santa hats. Sing carols out of habit, give gifts out of expectation, feel warm and fuzzy until December 26. If you can. Or, fall on your knees before the God in whose palm all the oceans of the earth are no more than a drop, who left His rightful and respected place of honor (when He had every right not to) to get rained on and laughed at, to catch the sniffles and go to parties and hang out with men who smelled like fish, so that you and I could dare to believe that such a God exists and that He loves us.
It still gets me.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope! A weary world rejoices! For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Oh, fall on your knees.....”