In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. —Luke 2:8–20
When I first heard my mother tell me, “God is no respecter of persons,” I had no idea what she was talking about. Even to my young mind it seemed that God was, if anything, excessively respectful of persons, giving us mere humans more dignity than we could be said to deserve.
And though Mom would often quote other texts that turned out to be not so scriptural—“God helps those who help themselves,” “Waste not, want not,” “Don’t load up on the bread”—it turns out she was right on with the “respecter of persons” business. It just took a few years for me to understand what that meant.
When Peter uttered these words he was explaining that God did not show favoritism to those who were wealthy or well-bred, not even to the chosen people, “but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35).
The story of the Nativity is a good illustration of this. The angels do not announce the birth of the Savior to the rulers of every land, they tell the closest people they can find—even if they’re humble shepherds. Mary doesn’t wrap her newborn babe in purple or silk, she swaddles him with what’s available—even if it’s only strips of cloth. And she doesn’t demand a golden crib for her Son, she makes do with what’s handy—even if it’s a hay-filled manger.
The Gospels are full of such examples. Jesus uses parables of everyday life to give his listeners some sense of what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s like a mustard seed, or leaven, or a lost coin.
He heals people with a word, a touch, or even a bit of mud. He turns water into wine, and wine into blood. As the fullest expression of God’s revelation, Jesus himself is how God communicates to us. Imagine that the creator of heaven and earth loves you so much that he wants to leave heaven behind to become human like you, to share in your joys and your trials, to walk this same earth, breathe this same air.
Imagine that, even as he wants to share your humanity, he offers you a share in his divinity, a share in his exuberant ecstasy, a place in his kingdom, a view of eternity. Imagine that he would die just to convince you that this is true.
Of course, nothing about the Incarnation is the least bit imaginable and, even with two thousand years to get used to the idea, we still have trouble believing it. Most of the Old Testament and most of our childhood teaches us that things that are holy are not like us. Indeed, the Hebrew word for holy means “set apart.”
Things that are holy are set apart for God’s use; the chosen people are set apart for God’s service. We learn that we don’t wear our church clothes to play, rosaries aren’t jewelry, and we don’t say “Jesus” unless we’re talking to him or about him. The idea that things become more holy the further from us they get seems to make a lot of sense. We’re all broken and damaged humans and we’re not eager to besmirch the sanctity of our Lord by mucking about in his presence with our meager selves.
As it happens, the Lord’s sanctity is not as fragile as we might imagine. Sin is the damage we do to our relationship with God, not some cosmic schmutz we’ll get all over him if we get too close.
Could we ever hurt God, though? Could he allow himself to be that vulnerable? He could and he did, and we put our very best efforts into it. We got our most morally upright humans involved—firstcentury Jews who lived and breathed the Law of Moses. Their job was to explain that Jesus was a blasphemer, an impostor, a man whose ego threatened the survival of all Israel.
Then we recruited some Romans, who had been perfecting some very creative torture techniques for just such an occasion, to strip him, taunt him, parade him through the streets as an object of scorn, and execute him in a manner we have yet to surpass in horror. Those of us who were his friends abandoned him, denied even knowing him. If you had personally been on the committee charged with perpetrating the most cruel and blasphemous assault possible, I suspect you could not have come up with anything worse.
Still, unbelievably still, he loves us, longs to be with us. The Scriptures resound with God’s longing for us: Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you. (Zechariah 1:3)
The Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. (Isaiah 30:18)
Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:4–8)
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:14–15)
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:20–24)
The Gospel according to John tells us that “God is love,” and this is always the default setting when it comes to our creator. He does not wait for us to become perfect or event to repent, but calls us constantly, even while we’re struggling with our faults or refusing to acknowledge them altogether. God takes what is at hand and finds the good in it. He takes what is humble and elevates it to a higher purpose.
As anyone who has children in their lives can attest, this is not a matter of turning a blind eye to faults or wishful thinking. Young people tend to live up to—or down to—our expectations of them.
Children who know they are loved become loving; those who are neglected or abused often become neglectful or abusive themselves. Those who are told they are smart and beautiful tend to take care of their studies and their appearance; those who are told they are ugly and stupid have little incentive to try.
Even material things demonstrate this result. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a house that is loved and one that is not, or the yard of an attentive gardener from that of someone who takes no interest. We frame our family photos, repeatedly dust treasured keepsakes, maintain memory books of handmade cards, ticket stubs, and autographs.
People and things blossom with love. Many people have difficulty rising to the challenges of the Christmas season (or the Christian life in general) because they feel a lack of love. Whether due to one of the countless tragedies of childhood, a failed friendship, a marriage ended by death or divorce, this perceived deficit can make it hard to participate in the season of giving with enthusiasm. You can’t give away what you don’t have.
Our faith has the remedy. Whatever failings our parents, siblings, or partners may have had, we have an alternate source for the love we so desperately crave. The Nativity is a concrete demonstration of God’s love for us—a love that, given the chance, will fill every need and exceed every expectation. This love can be impossible to express in human terms, but it has a way of supplying just what we need, just when we need it. If we can look beyond our circumstances and beyond the merely material, we can catch a glimpse of it.
Christmas is the perfect time to watch this principle in action. The most cherished gifts are rarely the most expensive, but often those that are more creative or that best express the unique relationship of the giver and the recipient. The most precious ornament on the tree might not be the biggest and shiniest, but might be a kindergartner’s glitter experiment or a tarnished bell that was Grandma’s.
The temptation to prepare for the new year by shedding the old and embracing the new can make us overlook the value in what’s right in front of us. It’s a good opportunity to think twice before casting off items that may still have some use.
It’s also a chance to recognize that what may have lost its luster for us might still be appreciated by someone new. Those items you think you might give to charity could find their way to someone else’s tree if you act early enough.
This Christmas, take a second look at the items—and the people—for which you’ve lost appreciation. Your reevaluation might give them a new lease on life.