Isn’t it surprising just how little the gospel writers make of Jesus’ birth?
I know that might sound strange when thinking about Christmas. But what I have in mind is his birth proper, that is, the natural (and painful) process of childbearing. The most we’re given by any of the writers is from Luke, who writes, “And while they were [in Bethlehem], the time came for [Mary] to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). She gave birth…that’s it! A very modest portrayal to say the least.
What appears to be the concern of the gospel writers is instead the extraordinary experiences of those surrounding Jesus’ birth: Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the magi, even Herod of all people. For them, the diverse and dramatic perspectives of these persons are the overwhelming foci. Angelic messengers, celestial aberrations, men struck mute, babes leaping in the womb and babes slain in search for the newborn king: this is the stuff of note for the gospel writers, majestic and terrible.
Of course, to speculate as to why this is, is to perhaps trod where we must not tread. But permit me a few steps beyond the caution tape. Perhaps it’s, firstly, because sometimes the best stories are not those told from the ivory tower, but those from the boots on the ground, as it were. Just maybe there is something more significant to learn about Jesus from the shepherd who bowed his head before the babe in the manger, smelling the sheep’s dung on his feet and feeling his heart skip a beat, than there is a from a textbook description of Spirit-wrought conception and delivery.
Or perhaps, secondly, because uttering the unutterable, expressing the inexpressible, is just that. How again is it that God and man were united in one person, dwelt in one fleshly body? Where shall we begin to explain that Jesus is truly God and truly man? The Council of Chalcedon? Or a young virgin who believed the angelic report and submitted to the divine will, yet failed to understand how these things could be? Maybe magic, even divine magic, is better explained by story than by science.
There is a modesty and a majesty to the birth of Jesus. Not only is the infant in the stable the Lord of all creation, but even the gospel writer’s accounts are ironically focused. While they boldly proclaim the majestic drama of the first Noel, their surprising modesty also speaks with a reserved, albeit reverberating, voice that pierces through the silent night.