Does Christmas send a shiver down your spine? It should. We seek at this time of year to reclaim the magic of Christmases past. We think of snow thick on the ground. Rosy-cheeked children skating on frozen ponds. Carol services by candlelight in draughty churches.
In 2020, there has been very little magic and wonder. Instead there has been sickness, death and a ban on seeing our loved ones; lost jobs and lost hope. To compensate, we feel more urgency this Christmas to seek out the magic, to find those spine-tingling moments, to reach beyond the humdrum and the daily grind.
But, lovely though the fairy lights and colourful baubles might be, we need look no further than the nativity itself to discover the real magic of Christmas. The Christmas message is one we sometimes feel we have heard before. But for Christians, even 2020 years on, it remains truly remarkable; it’s the story of God coming into the world and turning it upside down.
It’s easy to wrap up the nativity account with all the other tales told around Christmas: A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone; the work of Father Christmas and his elves. Indeed, much of the nativity story as told in school halls (though not so much this year) is just as fictional.
It’s unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable – it was customary for animals to live in the house with their owners, and as Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral town he and Mary would have certainly been taken in by relatives, even if there was no room for them in the guest quarters. As for the wise men, we do not know how many there were, or whether they were kings; and they almost certainly visited Jesus when he was about two years old. They would not have rubbed shoulders with those scruffy shepherds.
Now we often dismiss ancient cultures as credulous and unscientific. But the nativity would have seemed as incredible then as it does now. It’s insulting to assume that a first century society would have been more gullible than us on the matter of virgin births and angelic throngs. These folks would have been as prone to disbelief at such events as we would be today.
But the Bible is clear: the nativity is not just a cosy story, it is history. And, just like me, it was the future once. Because the thing that should send a shiver down your spine is that before this historical event took place, it was predicted as a future event in a whole host of prophecies. These were revealed through dreams and visions and written down in the Old Testament scriptures. They pointed the Jewish people to their coming Messiah, the anointed or special one who would bring about peace and justice. Carbon dating proves that these accounts were written long before that first Christmas.
If you have ever attended a carol service, these words from the prophet Isaiah may be familiar to you. They were written about 700 years before the birth of Christ:
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’
The prophet Micah told that the child would be born in Bethlehem, and Matthew – writing his Gospel for a Jewish readership, who would have heard the Scriptures read aloud every week in the synagogues – was very clear that he believed all the ancient prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus.
The birth of this baby was planned and it was special. Jesus was born into a time and a people who felt they were living in darkness. It had been 400 years since God’s voice was last recorded through the Jewish prophets. And the Jewish people were now living under the yoke of Roman occupation. It was a miserable time; not so different, perhaps to 2020.
But the first Christmas was all about light breaking into that darkness. The shepherds camped out in the hills at night were astounded by the brightness of the angels. The wise men were led to the child by a brilliant star. But despite these dramatic events, the birth of this baby caused only a small ripple at the time.
Perhaps this all feels simply too far-fetched, merely the magic of a children’s story? Yet, as the years passed from Jesus’ birth, that glimmer of light shone brighter and brighter. Today it is believed by more than 2 billion people around the globe.
Christmas is about the birth of a child who lit up the whole world. That child grew up to take on his shoulders all our pain, fear and guilt at the cross. He promises to love us and to draw close to us in our dark days and our broken places. He offers the hope that the darkness we see around us today will one day be banished altogether, along with tears, disease and death. Like those grand Wise Men who climbed down from their steeds to worship Jesus, Christians believe that we need to climb down from our own high horses and humble ourselves before him, admitting our need of him.
The lights we use to banish the darkness at Christmas time need not be extinguished once January rolls around. Seek a glimpse of that light and magic this season, and don’t let it go. Find a church and explore the spine-tingling mystery at the heart of it. For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
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